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How ‘religious freedom’ became a right-wing assault on equality and the rule of law

How ‘religious freedom’ became a right-wing assault on equality and the rule of law
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How ‘religious freedom’ became a right-wing assault on equality and the rule of law

The Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade sent shockwaves through the American electorate. But as shocking as the destruction of a fundamental right may be, more radical changes may lie ahead, as Andrew Seidel warns in his new book, “American Crusade: How the Supreme Court Is Weaponizing Religious Freedom.” As I have argued repeatedly over the past several years, the religious right has mounted a sustained struggle to pervert the meaning of religious freedom, transforming it from a shield to protect the rights of all to worship freely into a sword wielded by the most powerful.

There are many facets to this struggle, but there’s no doubt that the most consequential field of battle is the Supreme Court. Seidel’s book does a masterful job of laying bare the full scope of that struggle and the stakes involved — which could ultimately mean a de facto end to the rule of law as we normally understand it. As Seidel notes, 150 years ago the Supreme Court warned that weaponized religious freedom would “permit every citizen to become a law unto himself,” so there’s much more at stake here than “just” the First Amendment.

As Seidel explains, his book is not meant to be a comprehensive account of this entire complicated history. Instead, he focuses on a handful of key cases, including a few that predate the modern “religious freedom” crusade that are nonetheless crucial to the story. He doesn’t discuss these as lawyers normally do, in terms of court decisions and written and oral arguments. Instead, he tells the nitty-gritty story of what really happened in each of the cases, because official accounts often badly misconstrue the actual events. For example, in the famous “wedding cake” case, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Seidel interviewed the gay couple as well as two members of the Colorado civil rights commission that the Supreme Court majority slandered as anti-religious bigots. The result is closer to a living history of our time than any other book about the Supreme Court you’re ever likely to read.

I recently interviewed Andrew Seidel by Zoom. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

The title of your book is “American Crusade.” So how would you characterize this crusade? What are the crusaders trying to accomplish?

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