After the decision in the Hobby Lobby case allowed corporations to drop contraceptive coverage from insurance plans because of their “religious beliefs,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent that the Court’s ruling had ventured into a “minefield.”
The first explosion might have just happened.
A federal judge in Utah ruled that a witness who belongs to a polygamous religious sect can refuse to testify in a federal investigation over possible child labor laws violations, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
Vergel Steed, a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), will not have to respond to a subpoena regarding allegations of the use of unpaid laborers and children on a pecan ranch possibly run by FLDS.
FLDS’ leader is Warren Jeffs, who is currently serving a life sentence for sexually assaulting two underage girls whom he claimed were his wives. Jeffs was also accused of sodomizing three of his nephews, one of whom said the abuse started when he was around five, and repeatedly raping one of his nieces, starting when she was seven.
A CNN investigation revealed that one of the Jeffs men who lead the church reportedly “ordered all schools closed for a week so children could go to work picking pecans off trees at a private ranch,” and included a video of “hundreds of children, many of them very small” working there. Once the reporters arrived, children began attempting to flee the cameras.
In his ruling, US District Judge David Sam wrote that Labor officials “failed to show that forcing Mr. Steed to answer questions offensive to his sincerely held religious beliefs is the least restrictive means to advance any compelling interest it may have.” Steed claimed that he made a “religious vows ‘not to discuss matters related to the internal affairs or organization of [FLDS].’”
Sam wrote that the government “has placed substantial pressure on Mr. Steed to engage in conduct contrary to his religious belief because [it] seeks to compel that conduct by court order and imposition of sanctions if he refuses to answer [ ] questions regarding the internal affairs and organization of the FLDS Church.”
As ThinkProgress pointed out, before the Hobby Lobby ruling, SCOTUS “often recognized that religious liberty claims should not be used to disparage the rights of another.” So Steed’s assertion that testifying is against his religious beliefs would provide a weak argument in court because “his failure to testify could endanger children who have a legal right not to be forced into labor.”
After Hobby Lobby, Judge Sam was allowed to rule basically the opposite, and put Steed’s religious beliefs before the welfare of hundreds of children.