Marc DeGirolami kindly referred me to United States v. Ballard on the question of how, or whether, courts should analyze a person’s “sincere” religious beliefs. The defendants in Ballard had been convicted of fraud. The misrepresentations concerned the religious “I AM” movement, which the Ballards had founded. The court instructed the jury not to consider whether the defendants’ beliefs were true or false, but whether the defendants believed them to be true. If so, they were to be acquitted. The jury convicted them of a scheme to defraud. The Court of Appeals reversed, arguing that the question of truth or falsity also needed to be presented to the jury.
The Supreme Court reversed, and found the district court had properly excluded the question of truth from the jury. The majority opinion (written by Justice Douglas) affirmed that “[t]he law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect.” Yet the majority found that the defendants could be convicted of fraud for not really believe what they said, even if the content of that belief was outside judicial notice. Justice Jackson, in dissent, stated that he could “not see how we can separate what is believed from what is ‘believable’” and warned of the potential for religious persecution. He would have affirmed the reversal of the conviction.
Ballard is regularly cited (for example in the contraceptive mandate cases) for the proposition that courts cannot question the sincerity of religious beliefs. That is true, but the result in Ballard was upheld nonetheless. The Supreme Court determined that a court could rule on the acts of the plaintiffs (there, misrepresentations) without caring whether their belief was true. Cases like the Third Circuit Zubik case are doing something similar when they hold that “free exercise jurisprudence instructs that we are to examine the act the appellees must perform—not the effect of that act—to see if it burdens substantially the appellees’ religious exercise.” There, the Court found that requiring religious institutions to fill out the accommodation form was not prohibited, because it disagreed that doing so interfered with the exercise of their religious beliefs, as the Court interpreted them.
So although the strict terms of the balance-shifting test may seem to support those seeking the accommodation, that is only a matter of drafting a statute that is better tailored to further government interests. The more basic question – who gets to decide “substantial burden” and on what grounds – still weighs against believers.