Boerne, Texas, is an unlikely location for a contest over religious freedom, but in 1996 the local Catholic Archbishop decided to sue the city for refusing to allow him to expand a church situated in a zoned historic district. The Archbishop based his case on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which forbids religious persecution and also nullifies laws that are neutral on religion but may impose a burden on religious exercise. A federal judge found the act itself unconstitutional, but this decision was reversed upon appeal. Last October, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

As reported in the press, City of Boerne v. Flores sounds like a conflict between secular and religious interests. A growing Catholic congregation needs to expand its church facility, and Caesar—in the form of the Boerne city government—refuses, elevating a local zoning ordinance above the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution. But Boerne, Texas, is hardly a hotbed of secular humanism, and the case is a sign not of religious persecution but of the intellectual bankruptcy of the American clergy in general, and of Catholic bishops in particular.

The religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment is freedom from the federal government. The current interpretation of the 14th Amendment as a justification for federal intrusion into state and local affairs is a bare-faced lie invented by activist Supreme Court judges who deserve neither our respect nor our obedience. But, when even the 14th Amendment could not guarantee the rights of Peyote-using medicine men, Santerians, and Satanists, Congress caved in to pressure from the religion lobby and passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which begins with the observation that “The Framers of the Constitution, recognizing free exercise of religion as an unalienable right, secured its protection in the First Amendment to the Constitution.”

The Solons, like Professor Harry Jaffa, are not smart enough to know the difference between the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. When 18th-century Americans said religion, they meant the Christian religion, and most of them probably did not include Catholics. Jefferson was almost unique in regarding religion as something abstractly worthy of protection, but the Deist Jefferson was not among the Framers of the Constitution.

Since 1993, when the RFRA was passed, dozens upon dozens of suits have been brought. In just the past two years, the courts have been burdened by Muslim convicts demanding time off to adore Mahound without the presence of other Muslims who belong to different sects, by Santerian convicts wanting to wear their voodoo beads in prison, by Sikh schoolchildren demanding the right to take their “ceremonial” knives into the classroom, by “Wiccan” practitioners (a/k/a witches) objecting to surveillance of their “church,” by pro-life groups insisting that they have a constitutional right to block the entrances to abortion clinics, and on and on.

Typically, the more exotic cults stand a better chance of success than fundamentalist and pro-life groups, but the point at issue—so it is always said by the religion lobby—is not the attractiveness of the group itself: Moonies, snake-worshipers, and cat-eviscerators have exactly the same religious freedom as Catholics, Protestants, and Jews. In that case, it would be better if there were no religious freedom, particularly when it means that the freedom to cast spells or bite the heads off chickens takes precedence over all the customs and laws of American society.

The test case should be Islam, a religion that has, wherever it is established, systematically persecuted Christians and Jews. Even in the past 20 or 30 years, Muslims have tried to eradicate Christianity from Africa and the Middle East, and yet Muslims who openly use the language of Jihad want to avail themselves of legal protections that were never meant to apply to Islam or Buddhism or Obe.

The Boerne case has nothing to do with the freedom of religion protected in the First Amendment. It is actually a conflict which pits the real and palpable right of cities and states to manage their own affairs against an imaginary right of religion in the abstract. If government can, in the name of religious freedom, suspend self-government in Boerne, what is to prevent that same government from guaranteeing the right of women to become Catholic priests or Orthodox rabbis?