NPR sort of dives into a case involving immigration, religious freedom and a vague faith

Really, it’s a fascinating story — sort of.

I’m talking about an NPR piece out today with the compelling title of “Deep In The Desert, A Case Pits Immigration Crackdown Against Religious Freedom.”

Forgive my wishy-washiness, but the report has elements — such as its explanation of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act and how it works — that deserve praise. But at the same time, NPR fails to answer obvious, basic religion questions.

NPR’s opening sets the scene:

In January, Border Patrol agents walked up to a ramshackle old building on the outskirts of a small town in Arizona's Sonoran Desert. They found three men.

Two were Central Americans who had crossed the border illegally. The third was an American — a university lecturer and humanitarian activist named Scott Warren.

Warren was arrested and ultimately charged with two federal criminal counts of harboring illegal migrants and one count of conspiracy to harbor and transport them. Warren has pleaded not guilty.

Warren's arrest briefly flickered across the national news amid the partisan tug-of-war over the administration's immigration policy before fading into the background.

But his legal team's decision to stake out part of his defense on religious liberty grounds has made the case a clash between two of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' top priorities: cracking down on illegal immigration and defending religious liberty.

Keep reading, and NPR outlines cases that have cited RFRA — such as Hobby Lobby’s Supreme Court win in 2014 — and notes Attorney General Jeff Session’s stated support for religious liberty.

Then NPR quotes progressive legal sources, including a Columbia Law School professor and an American Civil Liberties Union official, who accuse the Trump administration of a bias toward conservative religious liberty causes.

That’s all perfectly reasonable material to include, although it would be interesting to ask conservative legal voices — such as the Alliance Defending Freedom — to weigh in. It would be interesting to see if they would side with Warren or the Trump administration in this specific case.

But my bigger question for NRP: What about the specific facts of the Arizona case in question? That’s where this report keeps things really vague.

Readers learn that Warren works with a humanitarian aid organization called No More Deaths.

And NPR describes some of the legal details:

Warren, whom neighbors called an active citizen within the town of Ajo, filed a motion earlier this year to have two of the charges dismissed on RFRA grounds.

Under the law, he has to show three things to make his case: that his beliefs are religious in nature; that they are sincerely held; and that they are substantially burdened by a law that applies to everyone.

If he can do that, the burden of proof then shifts to the government.

The piece ends this way:

At a court hearing in May, Warren testified about his beliefs. He described a life force that permeates all things — animate and inanimate. And his faith, he said, compels him to act when someone is in need.

"For me, we most definitely do unto others as we would want to have done unto us," he told the court.

The government opposed the motion, saying the prosecution does not substantially burden Warren's beliefs. DOJ lawyers said Warren "is not required by his beliefs to aid in the evasion of law enforcement. Nor were the people associated with these charges 'in distress.' "

The district judge presiding over the case denied Warren's motion to dismiss it. But the judge left the door open to Warren to try again when he's scheduled to go to trial in November.

Is it too much to want to know the specific nature of Warren’s religious beliefs? Does he belong to an actual faith group? Or are his beliefs purely personal in nature?

Such information would be extremely helpful and enlightening to know.

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