The dangers of definition–I

Our scripture for this series  is from Congressman Fisher Ames: “Popular reason does not always know how to act right, nor does it always act right when it knows.”


One of the trickier parts of writing a new law is defining who or what is the topic and who or what the target for relief or for limits is.  Our lawmakers have recognized from the beginning that specific language is necessary to avoid the infamous “unintended consequences.”   They—or, more appropriately these days, the legislative staff—recognize that danger and usually are able to tailor legislation to fit a specific circumstance.   When they are even a little off the mark, the consequences sometimes generate headlines that obscure the difficulty of making sure the application of a law is as narrow as required.

It’s a difficult job that the public seldom realizes is so much a part of developing the laws that govern our lives every second of every day. But the last thing participants in the process want to do is produce an adverse impact on those not intended to be the subject of the legislation.

Sometimes it is best for the supporters of legislation to leave some things vague. There are a lot of reasons for that.  One is that getting more specific weakens the intended broad effects of some  legislation.  Another reason is that lack of definition allows wider interpretations of the law, sometimes in the authority a law grants governmental subdivisions to enact their own policies within the law’s general framework—a latitude that sometimes exposes those subdivisions to criticism of government over-reach.

It’s a balancing act.  For those who believe in balance in the laws, it’s a tough act.

We have been seeing a phrase used increasingly in legislation in the last few years that cries for definition.  Defining it, however, is a minefield.

The phrase is “sincere religious belief,” now most prominently being the center of Senate Joint Resolution 39, the Wesboro Amendment or, for supporters, the Religious Freedom Amendment.

How do YOU define “sincere religious belief?”  Most properly, how do you define “sincere?” In fact, why don’t you stop reading and write your definitions, AND write what you consider your sincere religious belief, then come back.  Do not read ahead before you do this.

(PAUSE while you write)

Thank you for doing that.  Do you have the courage to put these statements before the public?   If you are a public official passing legislation making “sincere religious belief” part of the law for the general public, don’t you owe it to the general public to state your definition of the term and let the public whose behavior you seek to approve or disapprove and regulate know what your sincere religious beliefs are? You cannot dodge the issue by saying religion is a private matter—because you have made it a general-public issue.

Most people probably never define their belief.  “Whatever my church says is good enough for me,” many will think.  Do you really know what your church says as a condition of being a member?  And have you ever wondered if you really do believe its creed or its dogma or its principles?   Or have the lessons of life moved you in a different direction?  Have you become less religious in terms of what your church’s standards for religion are? And who is to judge the sufficiency within the law of your belief and the sincerity of it?   We’ll talk about that in our next entry.

Let me know what you think......