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Ballard and Sincere Religious Beliefs, Part II

In an earlier post, we considered United States v. Ballard and its attempt to draw a workable line between protecting religious exercise and enforcing the law.

That case involved fraud and taking money from others, and the court distinguished between beliefs (whose veracity could not be questioned), and whether the defendants actually believed (if not, they were committing fraud). In the world of the 1940s, and its relatively monolithic Christian culture, it is not hard to understand how the jury reasoned its way to a conviction. One should not commit fraud whatever one’s religious beliefs.

But in the contemporary administrative state those questions are much more complicated, both because of the reach of the law and our much more openly pluralistic society. Given the myriad aims and interests the government now purports to serve, the chances of Ballard being applied more broadly increases. The danger of outright religious persecution is not yet as dire as Justice Jackson contemplated in his Ballard dissent, but under this logic the substantial burden part of the balancing test seems less secure.

There are a number of ways a court might assess whether the sincerity of religious belief applies to a given regulatory situation.

A court might conduct a fact finding exercise to see whether the religious beliefs, even if sincere, could actually apply to the law at issue. This seems to be the process followed in Zubik. But the court disagreed with the objectors’ view that accommodation would implicate them in activity they believed morally wrong. One could take the Jackson position, that a court cannot question either the substance of the beliefs or whether defendants actually believe them. People often believe things that seem outlandish to others, and to draw the line where the Ballard majority did would invite unwelcome scrutiny of religious conduct.

But another way is to look at the sincerity of the government’s beliefs, which has the advantage of being compatible with the current balancing test framework for analyzing substantial burden, is to look at the government’s sincerity. RFRA does part of the work. As the Supreme Court has stated, “RFRA requires the Government to demonstrate that the compelling interest test is satisfied through application of the challenged law ‘to the person’ — the particular claimant whose sincere exercise of religion is being substantially burdened.” But that does not go to whether the government’s interest is, in fact, compelling. The law of free speech has some categories of compelling interests that justify narrowly-tailored restrictions on speech. Religious freedom cases, generally, have not articulated similar standards. Courts have often just assumed that the interest the government asserts is compelling, even if it is pitched at a high level of generality, such as “health” or “equality.” Even the contraceptive mandate cases focus more often on the least restrictive means part of the balancing test, but do not question the legitimacy of the governmental interests. The mandate cases have the opportunity to declare that generic interests, as applied to particular plaintiffs, are not sufficiently clear to be compelling without further evidence of what those interests actually mean.

Ballard and “Sincere” Religious Beliefs

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.

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