If I understand their beliefs about technology, no one from the Old Order Groffdale Conference Mennonite Church is googling Mitchell County v. Zimmerman. Then, there probably aren’t too many folks anxious about whether they can drive in Mitchell County, Iowa with steel cleats on their tires. But a lot of you might be interested in upcoming clashes between religious conscience and a requirement to provide contraceptives in health care plans and the various ways in which religious conscience will be clashing with homosexual rights. Accordingly, we’ll take a look at the legal structure of such clashes.
But first let’s quickly review the case in question. This particular Mennonite sect offered Romans 12:2 as the religious basis of their motivation in having steel “lugs” on the wheels of their tractors. Their idea of “be not conformed to this world” includes the conviction that tractors should not be used as an end-around strategy to take the place of the horse and buggy; the tractor should only be used for work, not for pleasure riding. This clashed with a county ordinance that forbade using steel cleats for the expressed purpose of protecting new concrete roads from deterioration. The Iowa Supreme Court sided with the Mennonites; since the ordinance did not prohibit certain other kinds of harm to the roads, the ordinance had to be closely scrutinized, and, under that close scrutiny, the court found that the county could have protected its interests in way that was less restrictive. For example, the county could have allowed the wheels to be used in certain circumstances or could have required a financial deposit to cover the anticipated cost of road damage.
Mitchell County v. Zimmerman has a value that goes beyond the particular facts. What it does is nicely explain how to analyze cases that involve the free exercise of religion. If you want to understand how courts will look at future cases, simply look at the analysis and plug in other religious rights on the one side and other restrictions on those rights on the other side. It won’t fit all cases since some contexts require additional considerations, but it’s a good head start.
We start with the legal origin of religious rights:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;… In America, one has “the right to believe and profess whatever religious doctrine one desires.”
But these rights are not unlimited:
Yet the Free Exercise Clause does not guarantee the government’s absolute noninterference with religion.. . . the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause does not prohibit a state from enforcing “a neutral, generally applicable regulatory law”…
So the state must show that its law is neutral and generally applicable. Then there are two kinds of required neutrality. The first is “facial neutrality:”
The most basic requirement of neutrality is “that a law not discriminate on its face.”…“A law lacks facial neutrality if it refers to a religious practice without a secular meaning discernable from the language or context.”
In other words, if you can tell just from reading the law that it is targeting a religious practice, it isn’t neutral on its face, and that’s a problem for the state.
Then there’s “operational neutrality,” which considers
“governmental hostility which is masked, as well as overt.”… We look beyond the language of the ordinance to determine whether there is “impermissible targeting”…we ask whether “religious practice is being singled out for discriminatory treatment.”
In addition to being facially and operationally neutral, the law must have general applicability:
an ordinance could violate the principle of general applicability even if religious conduct were not the only activity it prohibited, so long as religious adherents ultimately bore most of the burden of compliance.
Any given law could fail the test of general applicability by being “underinclusive.” It is underinclusive if it doesn’t prohibit non-religious conduct that is equally detrimental to the state interest in the law:
the Free Exercise Clause appears to forbid the situation where the government accommodates secular interests while denying accommodation for comparable religious interests.. . . If a law allowed secular conduct to undermine its purposes, then it could not forbid religiously motivated conduct that did the same because this would amount to an unconstitutional “value judgment in favor of secular motivations, but [against] religious motivations.”
For example, because Mitchell County allowed “secular” school buses to violate the ordinance with ice grips it was underinclusive.
If the law in question fails to be neutral or generally applicable, it will often – though not always – have to yield to the religious interest because it will have to pass the rigorous test of “strict scrutiny:”
…laws that are not neutral or of general applicability require heightened scrutiny. They “must be justified by a compelling governmental interest”…[the laws] “must advance ‘ “interests of the highest order” ’ and must be narrowly tailored in pursuit of those interests.”
Courts have found compelling governmental interests in preserving the bald eagle population against the practice of a Sioux faith and in maintaining highway safety rather than allow a permit to put a creche on a median. Concerning the requirement that a law be “narrow tailored,” a court has held that a law requiring that signs be placed on Amish buggies was not narrowly tailored because silver reflective tape and red lanterns were sufficiently effective for safety.
Whether a case is about Sioux eagle feathers, Amish buggies or (possibly upcoming) Roman Catholic views of contraception, they all matter because there’s a lot of similarity in the way they’re handled. You do learn a lot about your rights if you understand the right to have Mennonite tires.