A recent New York Times front-page article, “Religion Trumps Regulation As Legal Exemptions Grow,” the first in a series on the topic, raised the following question: Why are religious organizations increasingly exempt from the rules businesses and many other organizations must follow?
The Times focused on two Alabama day-care centers. “At any moment, state inspectors can step uninvited into one of the three child care centers that Ethel White runs in Auburn, Ala., to make sure they meet state requirements intended to ensure that the children are safe,” according to the article. “There must be continuing training for the staff.
Her nurseries must have two sinks, one exclusively for food preparation. …” And on and on.
By contrast, the day-care center run by the Rev. Ray Fuson of the Harvest Temple Church of God in Montgomery doesn’t have to deal with such red tape given that “Alabama exempts church day care programs from state licensing requirements.” The tone of the article was clear: The religious organizations enjoy an unfair advantage.
There are many similar laws nationwide. We’ve written about the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which forbids local governments from discriminating against religious groups when it comes to land-use approvals. That came about because cities often refuse to grant permits to churches because cities often don’t want commercial land tied up by non-taxpaying entities.
As the article points out, many such laws date to the early days of the nation, as a way to promote religious practice. But the Times reports that 200 such laws have passed in the past 17 years, often on a bipartisan basis, by politicians eager to curry favor with religious blocs. Advocates for such laws argue that they keep the government from interfering with constitutionally protected religious rights. For instance, it’s hard to practice one’s faith if local planning commissioners forbid the construction of a church, synagogue or mosque.
We have no major problem with most of these laws. Our problem is with the burdensome regulations on private activities that have seemed to require these exemptions for special activities like religion.
Government has gotten so deeply immersed in private activity that individuals have a hard time operating as they choose. For instance, the opening example of the Alabama child-care center should frighten anyone interested in maintaining a free society. A free people should get to choose how to design their own child-care centers, and shouldn’t be subjected to surprise inspections by government authorities, except in the most unusual circumstances. The Alabama Legislature passed the tough law in response to deaths at child-care centers — but those deaths took place at unlicensed and licensed ones. It is by no means clear that licensing will reduce tragedies at such centers.
The U.S. Constitution was designed to protect the rights of all Americans. Unlike the Times, we’re not outraged that religious organizations are exempt from the enormous regulatory burden placed on other Americans, but that other Americans cannot live as freely as those who operate religious organizations.