If you give religion an inch, it’ll take a mile. This has never been more true in the U.S. than it is today, as illustrated by the Supreme Court’s unfortunate Hobby Lobby debacle. One argument that Hobby Lobby’s religious, anti-choice owners made in their case was that because the Affordable Care Act already had exemptions to the contraceptive mandate for nonprofit religious institutions, that exemption needed to apply to for-profit corporations too. And they won. In other words, when Congress gave churches an inch, religious for-profit corporations took a mile.
Now, drivers in Mississippi are dangerously close to learning that if you give organized religion a bus, it’ll run you off the road. The Mississippi House has already passed House Bill 132, a bill that would allow church-owned vehicles designed to transport up to 30 passengers to be driven by someone who doesn’t have the required commercial driver’s license. One opponent of the bill has appropriately dubbed it the “Jesus Take the Wheel” Act.
Whatever you call the bill, it’s clear that if a shuttle bus is being driven by religious people, the Mississippi House doesn’t care whether the driver knows how to drive it… because “religious freedom” is more important!
Mississippi legislators aside, most people recognize the importance of only allowing properly licensed drivers behind the wheel. Amanda Metskas, Executive Director of Camp Quest—a secular summer camp that promotes freethought and critical thinking—writes, “Even if this loophole applied to Camp Quest, we wouldn’t allow unlicensed operators to drive our campers in buses. There is nothing about being part of a church that makes you qualified to drive children in a bus, and it’s simply irresponsible to put children’s lives in the hands of people without the proper training and licensure.
HB 132 exemplifies the recent line blurring between practicing one’s religion and doing normal things while religious. The former, which includes being able to pray to any god or teapot one chooses, is rightfully protected by the Free Exercise Clause. The latter, which includes operating a for-profit business or driving a freaking bus, is not subject to special protections. Even religious people should have to abide by the same rules as everyone else when performing nonreligious tasks.
Organized religion is not out for equality, it is out to grab as many special privileges as possible. HB 132 and the Religious Freedom Restoration bills going through the legislative process in a handful of states are specifically designed to exempt religious people from generally applicable laws. The federal version of RFRA has already been used by Hobby Lobby to carve out a special exemption for religious for-profit corporations. And as long as people continue to confuse special religious privileges with free religious exercise, zealous litigants and lobbyists will continue to chip away at the wall of separation between state and church.
Or maybe they’ll drive a bus through it.