Sunday, March 1, 2015

Limits of the Free Exercise Clause: Religion in the Workplace

            A case brought forward to the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals sought to overrule a court martial conviction against a Marine Corps member who disobeyed a lawful order. According to facts of the case, the appellant printed copies of “the biblical quote ‘no weapon formed against me shall prosper’ on paper.” Once these were created, the appellant would cut the quotes into different sizes and post them on her desk in three different places. The reasoning behind this placement was that she was a Christian and this was a way of exercising her faith. The arrangement the quotes were aligned in signified the holy trinity of the Christian faith.
     After being given a court martial conviction for defying an order to remove the biblical quotes, the appellant sought out charges claiming that her freedom of exercise had been violated. Under this protection, the appellant felt she had the right to express her beliefs through this religious motivated action. However, the court rejected this appeal. According to the court, “the definition of a ‘religious exercise’ requires the practice be ‘part of a system of religious belief”.” Since the appellants practice of placing cut out biblical quotes isn't a wide held practice of the Christian faith, and then it isn't protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the 1st Amendment.  The courts stated that “for these reasons, we reject the appellant’s invitation to define ‘religious exercise’ as any action subjectively believed by the appellant to be ‘religious in nature’.”
The question that emerges from this case is whether all religiously motivated activities, such as the pasting of biblical quotes on one’s office desk, are protected under the Free Exercise Clause. It can be taken further to include whether any action that has personal religious meaning should be covered under the Free Exercise Clause.

            Looking at it from the perspective of the courts, it could be understood that practicing one’s beliefs in any manner can be seen as a slippery slope.  Someone can say that human sacrifice is an expression of their personal faith, and as such, cannot be attacked as illegal due to 1st Amendment protections. On the point of this instance leading to a slippery slope, I agree with the court’s ruling. The issue that emerges for me is that many people express their beliefs in various different ways that are held as constitutional even though it isn't considered “part of a system of religious belief”. For example, on street corners in almost any major city, protesters can be seen seeking to gain attention on the behalf of a certain issues. These issues can range anywhere from religious to social beliefs. Protesting isn't considered part of the religious system of any religion. However, these people are expressing their beliefs that are deemed as religious through this option that isn't covered by an established religious body. Thus, my opinion tends to side more with protecting the individual’s religious freedom.

            I believe that the court ruled incorrectly in determining what is protected under the Free Exercise Clause. People should be allowed to express themselves religiously in whatever means that are appropriate for themselves. However, the slippery slope dynamic must be noted and certain stipulations to my opinion should be created in order to avoid the potential issues of having unlimited freedom to express oneself religiously. The means in which someone expresses themselves religiously should be protected as long as they are not harming society or any other individual. For this case, we can see that no harm was being committed to society or another individual. The actions of the appellant also do not harm a compelling state interest, and there are no social restrictions (such as a law or common social norm) which would restrict the appellant. While the appellant’s religious activities in this case can be seen as not harmful, others could try to evoke more violent or hurtful measures as personal religious practices. These activities should not be covered under the Free Exercise Clause. Since the appellant was only placing Bible quotes throughout her desk and it wasn't infringing on anyone else’s rights, she should have been granted protection under the Free Exercise Clause.

What are your own opinions of this case? Should unlimited personal religious exercise be seen as covered under the Free Exercise Clause of the 1st Amendment as long as it doesn't harm another’s basic rights? Has the court ruled appropriately in the decision for this case?


Mackenzie Y said...

I agree with the author that the court ruled incorrectly in this case. I think that the court’s definition of a religious exercise was wrongly misinterpreted by the ruling that the individual in question was not allowed to post these bible quotes. It may be true that the practice of placing cut out biblical quotes is not a wide held practice. However, it is a major aspect of the Evangelical tradition to attempt to spread the word of the religion, which she was technically doing. Had there been a rule against the posting of messages or something of that nature, I would understand why she may not be allowed to post these quotes. However, she was freely exercising her religion in the way she believed was necessary to facilitate her belief.

Libby W said...

I also agree that the court ruled incorrectly. This person has the freedom to express their beliefs, and I think it is not asking much to post Bible quotes on one's own personal desk. I think it would be a bigger problem if she were posting these quotes everyone and on other people's personal belonging's, but because she would likely be the only one to see the quotes I think she should be able to do it. When comparing this to the man in prison who requested to grow a beard for religious reasons, I think this is much less of a controversial issue. She was within her constitutional rights to post these quotes in her personal space.

Sam Cohen said...

I am a bit confused as to where the woman was working. Was she working for the U.S. Navy and/or the Marine Corps? Was she working for a government-run institution? These are important questions because if the government pays her salary directly or indirectly, the government probably owns the desk/workspace she was working in and I believe in that sense, it could be argued that the government has a right to deny her from doing this since she is posting biblical quotes on their property. With that said, the space in which the act occurs is important because protestors are protesting in public, whereas the woman in this case was in a workspace that was private and that was owned by some institution or company. However, I would agree with you nonetheless. I see this act as the equivalent of hanging a cross on one's desk or having a bible in your area. To me, this is not a big deal and should not be regulated, as she is putting these quotes up for her to see and not posting them for everyone in the office to see

Brandon Farrell said...

I am with Sam in that I too am a little confused as to where the woman was working. I agree that the court ruled in correctly in this case. This woman has the right to paste bible quotes to her desk at work just like people are allowed to have bumper stickers with bible verses on their car. It is the individuals personal space and it is in no way impeding others in any way. I think it is very important to note where the woman was working exactly and within what context the quotes caused controversy among her coworkers.