Horse diapers -- yes, horse diapers -- spur useful Wall Street Journal data dump on RFRA

Headlines don't get more provocative -- or clickable, to use modern lingo -- than this one from the Wall Street Journal (behind its strong paywall): "When Horse Diapers and Freedom of Religion Collide."

Yes, I wonder if the late Immanuel "Worlds in Collision" Velikovsky would appreciate the humor.

True to its general form of getting the story straight, the WSJ piece sets forth the conflict between the town of Auburn, Kentucky, wanting to keep its roadways clean(er) and the Old Order Swartzentruber Amish, whose theological conservatism precludes diapering horses:

Horse diapers have been thrust into the debate over religious freedom.
Two Amish men in Auburn, Ky., filed a lawsuit last month saying a city ordinance requiring horses to wear equine diapers -- bags designed to catch manure -- violated the ability of Amish residents to exercise their religion.
The ordinance, passed in 2014, broadened an existing law mandating the removal of dog waste in public places. The new law, which the city said was spurred by complaints from neighbors about horse manure, requires a “properly fitted collection device” to be placed on all horses walking on the street.

What could have been an occasion for lowbrow comedy turns out, in fact, to be a respectful and frank discussion of the merits of an ostensible public health law, as well as competing efforts to defend individual religious freedoms -- specifically the free exercise of religion.

Members of the town’s Amish community have refused to comply with the ordinance, saying equine diapers violate the community’s religious standards. That stance has landed many of them in court, or worse.
Last year, after a jury found Dan Mast guilty of violating the ordinance, he refused to pay the $193 fine and spent 10 days in jail. Last month, Mr. Mast, 27 years old, and another Amish plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the city of Auburn, its mayor and police chief in which they argue the law is intended to prosecute the Amish based on their religious beliefs.
As of October, the city of Auburn had more than 25 pending cases against Amish men who failed to attach diapers to their horses, according to the suit.

Yes, we are in religious liberty territory again, a topic that has received loads of media attention of late. Most of that attention, of course, was focused 240 miles northeast of Auburn in Morehead, Kentucky, where Rowan County clerk Kim Davis works.

But where Davis had to endure a brief jail stint -- and wait for deliverance via a law removing a clerk's printed name from marriage licenses -- the Old Order Swartzentruber Amish are utilizing one modern convenience: they've sued Auburn over the 2014 ordinance requiring horses riding on public streets to wear a diaper.

The diaper, apparently, is too modern for the Amish and the ordinance is believed to target the Amish almost exclusively.

The story likely would end there, except for Journal reporter Nicole Hong's reference to the 2013 Kentucky state Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA:

... a similar battle erupted around 2008 over the Amish’s refusal to affix orange-safety triangles to the back of their buggies. The Kentucky Supreme Court in 2012 ruled against the Amish. The following year, the state passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says the government can’t burden religious freedom unless there is a compelling interest and unless the government is using the least restrictive means to further that interest.

Now that wasn't so difficult, media types, was it?

No scare quotes around "religious freedom." No sarcasm about religious beliefs. Just a straightforward assessment: the state's 2008 reflective triangle rule was deemed an excessive request, and while the courts denied the Amish, lawmakers came to the rescue.

This is important, GetReligion readers, because I believe we're going to see a rising number of faith-based issues this year (and beyond) as a new administration in Washington, backed by a Congress under their party's control, seek to carve out accommodations for people of faith who feel burdened by civil requirements they believe impinge on their free exercise.

How the media reports these cases -- the terms they use, the framing, the understanding of a given issue -- will say much about whether or not the press finally "gets" it.

This careful reporting in the WSJ not only shows it can be done, but also exactly how to do it. Let us attend.

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