Writing for the majority in the Supreme Court’s ruling on the case of the Christian baker who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that “it hardly requires restating that government has no role in deciding or even suggesting whether the religious ground for [a] conscience-based objection is legitimate or illegitimate.” Howard Slugh believes this point very much worth stating, and argues that it has particularly important consequences for Jews:
Governmental entities have a nasty habit of refusing to protect religious practices that are, in their view, religiously mistaken or illegitimate. . . . On June 5, one day after the Supreme Court decided Masterpiece, a district-court judge handed down a decision in Estes v. Clark. In that case, a Jewish prisoner named Bruce Estes sued his prison for refusing to provide kosher food as well as a ram’s horn for use in traditional holiday services.
The prison argued that Estes could not claim it had deprived him of religious liberty because the prison food was kosher enough to meet his religious needs. . . . [B]ased on its understanding of Judaism, the food was kosher. The prison even hired a rabbi to testify that Estes misunderstood his faith. Estes hired his own rabbi to testify that the prison was not, in fact, properly preparing kosher food.
It should be immediately obvious that this sort of religious debate has no place in an American court. Judges are not qualified to determine which rabbi speaks for the only “True Judaism,” if such a thing even exists. And, even more important, the law would protect Estes’s right to religious liberty even if his personal faith differed from normative Judaism. Every American has a right to live in accordance with his conscience, regardless of whether he follows an orthodox faith. Fortunately, the court saw through the prison’s nonsense. It decided that, for the purposes of Estes’s religious-liberty claim, the relevant question was whether eating the prison food would violate his own sincere religious beliefs. The court recognized that it had no business attempting to discover and apply the “true” Jewish law. Rather, it had to accept the validity of Estes’s sincere religious beliefs. . . .
Unfortunately, these cases do not always go as well as the Estes case has gone so far. . . . Minority religions, such as Judaism, are the most vulnerable to mistreatment by judges inclined to play religious inquisitor. Judges, most of whom are likely unfamiliar with Jewish practices, are more likely to misunderstand or discount the importance of those practices relative to more common religious rituals. . . . Jews observe laws that may strike non-Jews as obscure, from refusing to wear a mixture of wool and linen to only eating wheat harvested at certain times of the year. Jewish Americans’ religious liberty should not depend on a judge’s ad-hoc determinations regarding the validity of such practices.
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