Religious Burdens, Real and Imagined: Nick Little on the Mini-Con Legal Panel

June 5, 2016

Here’s what I like about Nick Little. He’s CFI’s legal director (his real VP title is longer and fancier), and he has a way of talking about the intricacies of the law that really hits you in the gut. Court decisions, opponent’s legal strategies, troubling new legislation, they are not just “wrong,” but revealed by Nick for their vast, destructive implications.

At the Reason Rally mini-con panel on the legal issues facing the secular movement, it was great to see Nick in the midst of our friends and allies doing legal work at the other organizations. They were all wicked sharp, wicked smart, and incredibly dedicated, but then there’s just something particularly vehement about Nick’s answers to questions that really sets him apart. That, I guess, and his British accent.

Take the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (Nick rightfully bragged that CFI was one of the few progressive or secular groups to oppose it back in the 90s). RFRA led us to the abysmal Hobby Lobby decision, which on its face is a bad ruling that imposes an employer’s religious views about contraception on their employees. But Nick reminded us that reverberations are serious. He explained that a “substantial burden” on one’s religious freedom is now pretty much whatever any person says it is. It’s the rare, if not only, example of where a plaintiff gets to define the degree of burden on a constitutionally protected right. (Said Nick. I don’t know about these things, that’s why we have Nick.)

So Nick paints a picture where someone can simply decide for themselves what the rules of their particular religion are in regard to contraception, same-sex or transgender equality, or anything else. “You don’t get to change the rules of your religious beliefs,” he said. This means the civil rights for all sorts of people can be rolled back when this “burden” is invoked.

What organizations like ours need to do, then, is show that these religious interests can’t limit others’ rights based on their arbitrary faith tenets, but must prove with facts, science, and evidence that, say, complying with the contraceptive mandate is wrong, or that the bathrooms people use must be enforced by law.

You see? You weren’t even there, and you feel smarter already.