MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: religious liberty at the border.
A federal court in Arizona recently tossed out convictions against four people who are immigration activists. Their crime? Leaving food and water for migrants crossing the border in the desert.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: Pro-immigration groups cheered the ruling. So did religious liberty advocates. They say this decision affirms First Amendment protections for people of all faiths.
Joining us now to explain why is Steve West. He covers religious liberty for WORLD Digital and recently wrote about this case. Good morning, Steve!
STEVE WEST, GUEST: Good morning, Mary!
REICHARD: Well, start out by giving us a rundown of the case.
WEST: Well, sure. We’re used to hearing about cases that have to do with the rights of Christian groups to meet on high school or college campuses or with the rights of Christian adoption agencies to adhere to their beliefs about biblical marriage. Things like that. But this case is really different. Here, four members of an Arizona humanitarian organization were charged with violating federal law when they entered a wildlife refuge on the Arizona-Mexico border. They went in to leave food and water for migrants who illegally crossed the border to enter the United States.
REICHARD: May be an obvious question, but why did they need to do this?
WEST: This refuge—called Cabeza Prieta —has a long, largely unprotected border with Mexico. Because of its remote nature, it’s easy to cross the border there unapprehended. Just not so easy to make it through. It’s a beautiful desert. I’ve hiked in an area near there. But it’s also hot, waterless, and unforgiving. And many migrants have died on the over 50 mile crossing—32 in 2017 alone. Temperatures can reach 120 degrees and then there’s the rattlesnakes, scorpions, and cactus to navigate. So, food and especially water are essential.
REICHARD: Well, what did these helpers claim as their defense?
WEST: All four took refuge in a 1993 federal law—the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA for short. And they said it was a complete defense to their illegal acts.
REICHARD: And I take it the judge agreed?
WEST: She did. They were initially convicted by the magistrate judge hearing the case, but then on appeal to the district court they were acquitted. The judge just didn’t buy the government’s assertion that allowing people to leave clean water and food in the refuge increased the risk of death or extreme illness by encouraging illegal crossings. The reason just wasn’t compelling enough to overcome what she deemed their sincere religious convictions.
REICHARD: Steve, you mentioned RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Remind us what that law says and does.
WEST: It’s a 1993 law passed by congress to protect religious expression from criminal or civil laws that appear at least on their face as neutral toward faith. The law has protected Christian child-placing agencies and wedding service professionals—think of Jack Phillips and his Masterpiece bake shop. Protected them from SOGI laws—sexual orientation and gender identity non-discrimination laws. Christian employers also used it as a shield from federal requirements to cover contraception and abortion in their health insurance plans. But just as often or even more it’s protected other faiths—like a religious order that worshipped using an illegal, hallucinogenic drug. Or a seikh woman who violated regulations by wearing a ceremonial sword into a federal building.
REICHARD: So explain why this case matters in the broader religious liberty debate?
WEST: Well, this decision shows the breadth and importance of this law in protecting religious freedom. The defendants’ religious views here were what the judge called idiosyncratic. That is, non-traditional. And yet RFRA protects religious liberty for all religious views, even if we disagree with them. Even if, as here, the actions those views lead to might not be ones that everyone would support. The legal conclusion here is one that bolsters religious freedom. That ought to encourage religious freedom in other contexts that are more familiar to us as well.
REICHARD: Steve West is a reporter for WORLD Digital, where he writes the Liberties roundup. You can read more of his reporting at wng.org/liberties. Steve, thanks for joining us today!
WEST: Always a pleasure, Mary. Thank you.