Some pretty strange arguments are being made about religious freedom these days.

According to the Religious Right, “religious freedom” means that the owner of a secular, for-profit business can exclude birth control from an employee healthcare plan. It also means that the proprietor of a bakery, wedding gown shop or a bed-and-breakfast can refuse service to people who offend his religious beliefs. Others argue that even government officials can claim a “religious freedom” right to refuse to do aspects of their jobs. 

In Utah, an even stranger argument is being made in court: Religious freedom means you can rip off the federal government!

This curious assertion is being made by a band of fundamentalist Mormons on the Utah/Arizona border who practice polygamy. Many of them have large families and receive aid under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), informally called “food stamps.”

The federal government says 11 of the church’s leaders have committed fraud. They allegedly used SNAP aid to purchase groceries that were turned over to warehouses owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints (FLDS). The food was then doled out to church leaders and members, some of whom weren’t eligible for SNAP assistance.

Attorneys for the federal government assert that the food often ended up in the hands of well-heeled church leaders and didn’t reach the people who really needed it. They also say some of the food was sold and that church leaders used the money to buy luxury goods, such as fancy cars.

The principle of religious freedom does not mean you have the right to steal food.

Church officials say it is their religious practice to live communally and that the collection of food in a central place is protected by the principle of religious liberty. They also say they had a religious right to gather up and “consecrate” all FLDS property, including provisions purchased with SNAP aid.

A federal judge has agreed to hear arguments in the matter next month. He should quickly dismiss this daft claim. Religious freedom confers no right to cheat and swindle a federal program designed to help those in need.

About 45 percent of the recipients of SNAP aid are children. Other recipients are elderly or are on disability. Most adults who receive the benefits are working, but they don’t make enough to make ends meet.

These are the people SNAP was designed to help. And that’s the real tragedy of this case. There are children living in the FLDS community who need this aid. In a court filing, federal prosecutors have asserted, “In at least one instance, the shortages in nutritious food led to severe health issues for children.”

The feds’ legal action doesn’t aim to cut off SNAP aid – merely to ensure that it ends up in the hands of the people who really need it. Right now, it looks like the aid is being diverted to FLDS leaders who are already living quite well.

That isn’t religious freedom. It’s plain, old-fashioned fraud.

P.S. One of the FLDS leaders charged in the case, Lyle Jeffs, pried off a court-ordered home-monitoring device and is on the lam. In a court filing, his attorneys suggested that he has been raptured. You can’t make this stuff up.