Cake is rarely a matter of life or death, although British comedian Eddie Izzard once suggested that the Church of England is so squishy that an Anglican Inquisition would offer a choice between cake or death. This bit of absurdist humor was recently one-upped by The New York Times, which published a rambling column by Margaret Renkl that concluded: “It’s time to stop giving believers a pass just because their beliefs happen to run counter to the laws of the nation they live in. Human lives may depend on it.”
Among these hazards of religious liberty are bakers whose “religious convictions prevent [them] from baking a wedding cake for a gay couple.” Other dangers include school prayer and employers offering workers health insurance that does not cover some contraceptives. Also, measles.
One of these things is not like the others.
Not Getting Your First-Choice Cake Isn’t Life-Threatening
Measles can be a life-threatening disease. Not getting a custom ceremonial pastry from one’s first-choice bakery is less so, as is listening to school prayer and buying birth control for oneself. Furthermore, although there are religious communities that oppose vaccination to varying degrees (Renkl singles out “ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities”), the movement against vaccines has been driven by bad science and fearmongering frauds like disgraced former doctor Andrew Wakefield, not by religious doctrine.
So why is the Times publishing pieces conflating life-threatening diseases with difficulties in decorative cake acquisition? If Renkl and her editors are concerned about religious exemptions to measles vaccinations, they could have written and published an article focused on that and saved the cake wars and school-prayer fights for another time. Rather, they mostly seem to care about measles outbreaks as a means to attack religious liberty claims by conservative Christians.
Their theory seems to be that allowing any religious liberty claims opens the door to spurious and dangerous claims of religious liberty. But this is a non sequitur. There are well-established legal doctrines that do not allow religious liberty claims to be an unquestioned “get out of jail free” card.
However, this jurisprudence does put the burden of proof on the government when it seeks to restrict the free exercise of religion. That the government may have a compelling interest in restricting religious liberty with regard to vaccinations for potentially deadly diseases does not mean that the government also has a compelling interest in forcing people to produce customized ceremonial pastries.
This should be obvious, but Renkl seems to reject all religious liberty claims that might hinder government action. If arbitrary power is the goal, all limiting factors on government authority are rejected as a matter of principle. This inverts the American principle that the government bears the burden of proof when it seeks restrictions on fundamental liberties, and it will not be confined to squashing religious liberty claims.
Read more at The Federalist