The religious crazies are at it again in Indiana, trying to use the state version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act for their aberrant behavior. This time, it's a guy who's trying to get out of paying taxes.
And once again, the Indianapolis Star has managed to run a religion story without talking to any religious people.
One Rodney Tyms-Bey says that "paying his state taxes is a burden on his religion," the newspaper says:
At trial, Tyms-Bey, 41, claimed the religious freedom law is a valid defense for tax evasion, an argument the court rejected.
A clause in Indiana's RFRA permits individuals to cite the law as a defense in criminal legal proceedings, unlike the federal RFRA law enacted in 1993.
"When this law was signed, it opened up a whole new world of legal defense," said Matthew Gerber, Tyms-Bey's defense attorney.
The state argues that Tyms-Bey cannot use the defense, as he failed to identify his religion and the state's imposition of income tax does not burden his religious practice — whatever it may be.
The case is two years old, but oral arguments were scheduled for appellate court today -- showing how long such matters can clog the wheels of justice. We GR folk have scrutinized reports on RFRA and its state versions for years, but Tyms-Bey's case seems like an enormous reach.
Yet the Star misses obvious questions in dealing with this case. Things like "Say, Mr. Gerber, what is Mr. Tyms-Bey's religion? What are his religious practices? And how would they be inhibited by paying his state taxes?" We read no hint of that.
On one level, the story appears to strive for balance. It reports an "I told you so" from Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry, who reminds the paper that he wrote a letter in 2015 on the matter:
"While the religious freedom defense would not constitute an absolute bar to prosecution, why should a prosecutor then have to show that enforcement of the criminal code — enacted by the legislature to define unacceptable conduct — furthers a compelling governmental interest?" he said. "Our religious freedoms are protected by the federal and Indiana Constitutions."
The article then quotes Gerber on why the case should move forward:
"Our argument is that we should bring this to a jury," Gerber said. "The jury should determine if (Tyms-Bey has) a closely held religious belief. The legislature passed RFRA, and the way it's worded, it does establish a defense in criminal or civil prosecution," he said. "RFRA is a complete defense."
All well and good. But then the Star trots out the "crazies" from other cases this year. There's the First Church of Cannabis in Indianapolis, which is suing for the right to use its favorite weed sacramentally. And there's the woman who cited RFRA for the right to beat her child.
I wrote about the coverage of the child beating case in September. The Star said Kin Park Thaing's "evangelical Christian beliefs" required her to bruise her child with a coat hanger. But the paper didn’t name the church or its denomination, or how it was evangelical. Nor did it seek any quotes from the pastor or any congregants.
For that story and for this tax-evasion piece, wouldn't it have been a good idea to get comment from religious leaders -- either around Indianapolis or elsewhere? The Washington Post got feedback on the child beating case from Mat Staver, chairman of the Liberty Counsel. The Star has had two months to notice that and emulate it.
Without either of those elements, this article reads like guilt by association, even a strawman tactic -- holding up a caricature and making it look like the norm.
Then the Star article leaps to the national level, reaching back to 1982 for a Supreme Court ruling against an Amish employer who lost a suit over paying Social Security taxes. In such cases, "the U.S. Supreme Court generally has held in favor of the state," the paper says.
There's a more current item in the story, but it looks like a classic non-sequitur:
More recently, the controversial Hobby Lobby case reaffirmed previous rulings in the federal law. Simply put, there is no justification for not paying taxes, according to federal law.
In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the court allowed closely held for-profit corporations to be exempt from a law its owners religiously object to if there is a less restrictive means of furthering the law’s interest, according to provisions of the federal religious freedom law.
How does that case deal with federal taxes? Hobby Lobby was suing for the right to opt out of Obamacare because the plan included contraceptives that end life, in the company's view.
But the Indianapolis Star wouldn't have had to go outside the state to find other RFRA-related cases. Like the brutal treatment of a pizza parlor that said it wouldn't cater a gay meeting. Or a florist in Goshen who confessed reservations about catering to gays.
Because the newspaper wouldn't want to convey the idea that religious objectors to government decrees are all crazy. Would it?