Professor Leslie C. Griffin, Do You Have a Right Not to Mow Your Lawn?, Hamilton and Griffin on Rights

Do You Have a Right Not to Mow Your Lawn?

An Indiana appeals court recently rejected an environmentalist’s claim of conscience not to mow his lawn. The court’s reasoning is persuasive and should be a model for all claims of conscience, including those about contraception and same-sex marriage.

The Facts

Bloomington, Indiana resident Alexander Gul is an environmentalist who “believes that modern day lawn maintenance practices are harmful to the environment.” He does not mow, water, fertilize or apply chemicals to his lawn. A local ordinance forbids lawns higher than eight inches. Gul was cited 38 times and accrued fines totaling $1720 and abatement costs of $1100 for his long grass.

Gul argued that enforcing the law against him violated his freedom of conscience under the Indiana Constitution. The trial court ruled in favor of the City.

The Argument

            On appeal, Gul argued that the grass law violated his “rights of conscience,” which are specifically protected by the Indiana Constitution. The court rejected that argument, concluding that constitutional rights of conscience extend to beliefs, not actions. “In other words, the government may not punish citizens solely for the opinions that we hold.”

After analyzing the meaning of conscience in Indiana and American history, the court made the following important point: “We cannot conclude…that the drafters of the Indiana Constitution intended to enshrine a right to believe whatever one desires and alsoto exercise those beliefs with no regard for the law.” Such a rule—allowing one to exercise no regard for the law–“would be tantamount to declaring nearly every statute and ordinance on the books in Indiana unconstitutional, as it is possible to find someone, somewhere, with a sincere belief that contravenes every law.”

Indiana’s interpretation of its Constitution parallels the Supreme Court’s reading of the Free Exercise Clause, which similarly holds that no citizen is above the law, and that citizens must obey neutral laws of general applicability even when those laws conflict with their beliefs.

The Current Trend

The problem today is that the federal and state governments have passed numerous statutes—both religious freedom restoration acts (RFRAs) and conscience clauses—that allow all the Guls of the world to come into court and say: “I have a right to believe whatever I desire and also to exercise my beliefs with no regard for the law.”

The court’s analogies in Gul drive home the commonsensical point that conscience protects beliefs, not illegality, and that these new super-conscience-protecting statutes are at odds with American history and tradition.

The Analogies

The court shrewdly drew some analogies between environmentalists and smokers and pet owners. Just as environmentalists are free to hold a sincere belief that treating the lawn is bad, but are not free to disregard the grass laws:

One is free to hold a sincere belief that cigarette smokers should be able to smoke anywhere they would like to do so. But one is not free to smoke in, for example, buses, restaurants, libraries, or hospitals.

One is free to believe that rabies vaccinations are harmful to dogs and cats. But one is not free to refrain from vaccinating one’s pets.

I add my analogies to those of the Indiana court:

One is free to believe that contraception is immoral. But one is not free to disobey the health insurance laws and block contraceptive coverage for one’s employees.

One is free to believe that same-sex marriage is immoral. But one is not free to refrain from selling wedding cakes and bridal gowns to gay and lesbian customers.

One is free to believe that the Bible prohibits medical treatment. But one is not free to neglect the health and physical well-being of one’s children.

One is free to believe that same-sex marriage is immoral. But one may not work as a clerk in a marriage office and refuse to perform same-sex marriages.

And so forth. Our state and federal constitution drafters knew better than to create a right to disobey the law. It is time to follow their lead and end the era of special RFRAs and conscience clauses.

That way our neighborhoods will all have good lawns.