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This Week in God, 5.17.14

The Republicans' U.S. Senate candidate in Nebraska believes, "Government cannot force citizens to violate their religious beliefs under any circumstances."
Ben Sasse in Lincoln, Neb., on May 14, 2014.
Ben Sasse in Lincoln, Neb., on May 14, 2014.
First up from the God Machine this week is a U.S. Senate candidate who seemed to suggest that religious beliefs can be applied so broadly, they can justify lawbreaking on a rather grand scale.
In Nebraska this week, Ben Sasse won his Republican primary with relative ease and is the clear favorite to replace retiring Sen. Mike Johanns (R). But in the meantime, Ian Millhiser and Josh Israel noted that Sasse takes a rather expansive view when it comes to the First Amendment.
"Ben Sasse believes that our right to the free exercise of religion is co-equal to our right to life," the candidate's campaign materials explain. "This is not a negotiable issue. Government cannot force citizens to violate their religious beliefs under any circumstances."
It's that last part that's written so broadly as to be problematic.

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.

It's easy to imagine circumstances in which, under Sasse's model, Americans would be justified in ignoring all kinds of laws. Most of the current political debates relate to issues such as anti-discrimination laws and contraception access, but if "government cannot force citizens to violate their religious beliefs under any circumstances," it would necessarily open a dangerous legal door.
The ThinkProgress piece added, "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."
To date, the candidate has not elaborated on how he might want to apply his stated policy position. The Senate race in Nebraska in 171 days away, which should give Sasse plenty of time to expound on his perspective.
Also from the God Machine this week:
* Remember the South Carolina proposal to create a state fossil, which ran into opposition from creationists in the state legislature? The dispute appears to have been resolved this week.
* Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) continues to argue that "the Constitution was created by God," and to bolster his case, the Texas Republican is citing a quote from Alexander Hamilton. The problem, in this case, is that Hamilton's quote came from 1775 -- years before the Constitution was written.
* In the wake of the recent Supreme Court ruling on government-endorsed prayers at local-government meetings, religious right groups are pushing communities to promote Christianity at official public gatherings. My pals at Americans United for Separation of Church and State this week launched "Operation Inclusion," hoping to push local officials in the other direction.
* And Pope Francis this week addressed an untraditional subject: extraterrestrials. "If ... an expedition of Martians arrives and some of them come to us ... and if one of them says: 'Me, I want to be baptized!' what would happen?" he asked. The pope added that his church turns no one away, even aliens from another world (thanks to Summer Ash for the heads-up).