Please, Can Someone Help Explain Religious Freedom to Gary Johnson?

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson recently sat down with Townhall.com’s Guy Benson for a fascinating interview covering a number of different topics. In “Part II” of the interview, Johnson intimated that he disagreed with his running mate Bill Weld’s one-time suggestion that Stephen Breyer or Merrick Garland would be ideal Supreme Court nominees, and he suggested that he would not be opposed to a bill protecting the unborn after 20 weeks (though he also insisted that he did not object to the pro-abortion Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling being “the law of the land”).

However, when the discussion turned to religious liberty, Johnson seemed completely out of his depth, something which should come as no surprise to The Pulse 2016 readers who have followed our coverage of his numerous, head-scratching remarks on the subject.

First, Johnson again tried to draw a distinction between Utah’s religious liberty compromise legislation and the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which Johnson views as problematic (though his reasons for doing so are flawed, as I pointed out here). Most tellingly, when Benson asked Johnson how Indiana’s RFRA law differs from New Mexico’s RFRA — which Johnson signed as governor — the Libertarian had a quick reply: “I don’t know.”

Next, the interview moved on to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision:

BENSON: … Was Hobby Lobby, the decision from the Supreme Court — was that rightly decided, in your view?

JOHNSON: Now this was Hobby Lobby saying they had to provide —

BENSON: The government saying that Hobby Lobby had to provide — a private, closely-held company had to provide certain abortifacients and contraceptives —

JOHNSON: I think that what happened in Utah regarding religion is that if you are in business, you can’t discriminate. If you are a religious organization, absolutely, that’s part of your being a religious organization and it’s arguably not public in any way whatsoever.

BENSON: So, but would the Hobby Lobby decision — this was about contraceptives and a company, a private company not wanting — the religious owners not wanting to provide —

JOHNSON: Yes, I think that that would be discrimination against the employee.

BENSON: So you disagree with the Hobby Lobby decision. You think the Supreme Court got that wrong.

JOHNSON: The Supreme Court required Hobby Lobby to provide…?

BENSON: No, that was — Obamacare did, and the Supreme Court overturned that, threw it out.

JOHNSON: Well, I’m not going to second guess the Supreme Court, but as a business principle, I would not — as a businessperson, I would not restrict coverage based on my religious beliefs as opposed to —

BENSON: If you owned the business, you’re saying —

JOHNSON: If I owned the business —

BENSON: That’s a different question, of course, of the government forcing all businesses to do something, right?

JOHNSON: Sure, I just think when you get into business, if you are providing services as a business, that that is — I just don’t want to be part of discrimination in any way, whatsoever.

Good grief, where to begin? Is this former governor, who is trying to pass himself as a serious presidential candidate, really not familiar with the basic facts of the Hobby Lobby case, perhaps the most consequential Supreme Court ruling on religious liberty in the last decade? That does not inspire much confidence.

Further, Johnson also completely sidesteps the question of whether the government ought to force businesses to provide certain services, choosing instead simply to give his opinion that he personally would not apply his religious beliefs to his business practices. This does not testify strongly either to his libertarianism or his religious beliefs.

And then there is Johnson’s attempt to draw a strict dividing line between “businesses” and “religious organizations” when it comes to religious liberty. This becomes even clearer when the former governor is asked about his opinion of the Little Sisters of the Poor court case:

BENSON: What do you think of the Obama administration’s lengthy legal battle with the Little Sisters of the Poor, Catholic nuns, again over contraception. The nuns didn’t want to facilitate the purchase and provision of contraception. The administration has battled in court, in federal court, and it seems like there’s — it’s been basically punted by the Supreme Court for now. Do you think that’s an appropriate of the administration’s power?

JOHNSON: No, and, you know, I’ve never discussed this before, and you’re the first person that’s asked me that. But now haven’t we gone over to the religious side because clearly you’re talking about the Catholic nuns — you’re talking about a religious institution, different from Hobby Lobby, and that, as a Catholic, I understand the aversion to birth control and that’s part of it. So, I would be — I’m believing that this Utah legislation that passed would cover the Catholic nuns. Do I have this wrong? Please, educate me — make this an educational session here also —

[…]

JOHNSON: But I think — so back to freedom of religion as opposed to being in business, that there is a separation…

So, if I understand Governor Johnson correctly, one’s ability to live by one’s religious beliefs only applies if one is part of a religious organization and not if one is in a private business. Sounds straightforward, except that this distinction appears nowhere in the First Amendment, nor has it been made by the Supreme Court.

Although religious freedom is certainly not an unlimited license, it also cannot be compartmentalized to only some aspects of individuals’ lives. While the left would like to redefine it to mean only “freedom of worship,” the fact remains that free exercise has always been understood to apply well beyond exclusively religious undertakings. Americans’ rights of conscience are protected in their workplaces and in the public square just as they are in their homes and places of worship.

One would expect a Libertarian to be well-acquainted with the fundamental nature of our “first freedom.” Unfortunately, Gary Johnson continues to defy expectations — and not in a good way.

Paul Dupont is the managing editor for ThePulse2016.com.