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Nov 13 2007
religious freedom and the law

A couple in Maryville TN have been charged with operating a plant nursery without proper state certification. (See here.) Defending themselves without the aid of a lawyer, they have claimed that they are prevented by the Christian beliefs from signing any type of agreements with anyone or any organization. Wendy Gail and William Albert Roseburgh have also suggested that the number of the form required by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture is also troubling: 996, which apparently reminds Wendy a bit too much of the number of the beast.

Their claim that they are forbidden by their religion from completing the proper paperwork is based on Proverbs 22:26: "Be not thou one of them that strike hands, or of them that are sureties for debts." Their defense is also partly based on the claim that the marigolds, mums and petunias which they grow are not available for sale at a price, but rather in exchange for a donation. One also supposes that they must make some sort of deal with those who supply them with materials to run their illegal plant nursery, buying seeds, soil, fertilizer and so forth. Interestingly, their religious beliefs do not seem to exclude these sorts of deals.

Religious freedom is an important ideal to non-believers, as it should be to all Americans. The government should neither reward nor punish people merely for following their religion. Viewed naively, it may at first seem that this is a case in which this principle should apply and the Roseburgh's should be able to act according to their religious beliefs. However, there are two important exceptions that must be remembered. One, which is frequently discussed in this newsletter, is the idea that government officials while acting in their official capacity face some limitations on religious freedom as part of the "separation of church and state". The other, which applies in this case, is that religious belief cannot be used as an excuse for breaking a law which exists for a compelling secular purpose.

The regulation of plant nurseries by the state was never intended as a way to harass people of a certain religion. In fact, it is likely that this scenario never even occurred to the legislators. Rather, the law was designed to control and prevent the spread of plant borne diseases and pests. The state should be willing to make reasonable compromises on behalf of those who feel their religious beliefs will force them to violate the law. For instance, the judge in the Roseburgh case offered to allow them to complete the necessary paperwork and to consider it valid even without their signature attached, but the couple refused. Still, despite the view among many observers that the couple is being denied their religious freedom, the court must ultimately enforce the law. To do any less would be to set a precedent that would allow any law to be broken without penalty.

"You ask if I study the law. This is the law I study," William Roseburgh said during the trial, referring to his Bible. "I will follow his word, and if they persecute me, so be it." Although he should not be persecuted, he should be prosecuted.

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