The Deep Question Behind Silly Religious Freedom Cases

The latest threat to religious freedom: Bike lanes.

The latest threat to religious freedom: Bike lanes.

A church in Washington, D.C. is alleging that its freedom of religion and the right of its parishioners to attend worship services is in grave danger of being violated.

The threat? A proposed bike lane that would limit church parking.

This, on its face, sounds silly. The parishioners of The United House of Prayer have a right to attend worship, but they probably don’t have a constitutionally protected right to prime parking at the church.

But the church’s fierce defense of its street parking opens up an interesting question: What is it about churches that deserves the special accommodations provided to them by the Constitution?

The letter sent by the church hints at a few reasons it feels it deserves this special consideration. One is the claim that it provides a public service to the community, by among other things funding affordable housing. That’s definitely a worthwhile goal, but there are secular organizations that do that, too, and they don’t get the constitutionally protected parking the church is claiming here.

The other reason they offer is a bit more compelling: That prayer and worship are unique activities that the government is particularly obligated to leave alone. Our beliefs about things beyond this world are important enough, compared to other kinds of non-religious activities and beliefs, that the Constitution cordons them off under the heading of “free exercise”. In today’s world, I think it’s harder to argue that that’s true: The line between “religious” and “non-religious” beliefs is a foggy one at best, and privileging organized religions leads to awkward questions when principled non-religious people (or people who are religious in ways not readily recognized by the American legal system) want protections, too.

But even if we do agree that religion merits unique protection, that doesn’t necessarily translate into “government must never do anything to upset a religious person.” Figuring out where the line is, as this bike lane case will have to do, is tricky business. If prayer and worship are uniquely protected, how far do we go to rope them off?

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