Nebraska Senate Nominee Says Religious Beliefs Can Justify Breaking Any Law

CREDIT: AP Photo/Nati Harnik

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE)

“[O]ur right to the free exercise of religion is co-equal to our right to life,” according to the campaign website of Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican who won his party’s nomination to the United States Senate on Tuesday. Nebraska is a solid red state that preferred Romney to Obama by a massive 21 point margin in 2012, so Sasse is now all but certain to succeed retiring Sen. Mike Johanns (R) this November. If he does, Sasse promises to promote an almost anarchistic vision of religious liberty as a member of the Senate. According to Sasse’s website, “[g]overnment cannot force citizens to violate their religious beliefs under any circumstances.”

Here’s a screenshot of the relevant part of Sasse’s website:

Sasse screenshot

The question of when religious belief exempts believers from following the law is at the forefront of our national debate right now, with the Supreme Court poised to decide whether religious business owners can refuse to offer birth control coverage as part of their employer-provided health plans, even when doing so would violate federal law. Yet, even the plaintiffs before the Supreme Court acknowledge that religious liberty is not an absolute right to violate any law at any time. As the crafting chain Hobby Lobby says in its brief to the justices, the government may limit religious believers actions when it uses “‘the least restrictive means of furthering’ a ‘compelling governmental interest.'” This is the standard set by federal law, although there is some uncertainty about how the justices will interpret this legal standard in its Hobby Lobby decision.

Sasse, however, apparently believes that this law does not go far enough, even if the Court gives Hobby Lobby everything it is asking for. His proposed rule — that government cannot require someone to act counter to their religious beliefs “under any circumstances” — would mean that literally any law could be ignored by someone who held a religious belief counter to that law. According to National Geographic, for example, “[h]undreds, if not thousands, of women are murdered by their families each year in the name of family ‘honor,’” and while this practice “goes across cultures and across religions,” some of the perpetrators of honor killings are motivated by their religious faith. Under Sasse’s formulation of religious liberty, a person who killed his own sister because he believed he was under a religious obligation to do so would be immune from prosecution for murder.

Similarly, religious beliefs have been used to justify discrimination against racial minorities, women, and LGBT Americans at different points in American history. In an opinion upholding Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage, a state judge wrote that “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” Former Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett offered a similar view in 1960, claiming that “the good Lord was the original segregationist.” The conservative Bob Jones University drew a similar connection between religion and racism to justify excluding African Americans entirely until the early 1970s, and then to justify a ban on interracial dating and marriage among its students.

In the 1980s, a California religious school called Fremont Christian refused to offer health benefits to most of the married women in its employ, claiming that “in any marriage, the husband is the head of the household and is required to provide for that household” — and thus wives should have to depend on their husbands for health coverage. They unsuccessfully tried to convince a federal appeals court that, because of their religious beliefs, they are allowed to deny equal compensation to women. Much more recently, Arizona lawmakers pushed a bill that would have likely given religious business owners the right to refuse to serve LGBT customers. One of the lawmakers who backed this bill explained that it was introduced in response to instances where anti-gay business owners in other states were “punished for their religious beliefs.”

Under Sasse’s preferred rule, where “government cannot force citizens to violate their religious beliefs under any circumstances,” racists, sexists and homophobes who claim a religious justification for bigotry would be immune from anti-discrimination law. And his rule would not simply apply in sensitive areas of the law that protect people’s lives and their livelihoods. Indeed, under Sasse’s formulation, a person who believes that they violate their religious beliefs if they are late to church could ignore the speed limit, traffic lights, and stop signs if obeying traffic laws would cause them to miss just one minute of their church’s Sunday service.

ThinkProgress contacted the Sasse campaign to offer them an opportunity to clarify whether the candidate truly believes that any practice, including “stoning adulterers or putting to death those who work on the Sabbath” should be allowed if it is justified by a religious belief. As of this writing, we have not received a response.