The Supreme Court declined to review the case of an Idaho man who claimed SSN violated his religious liberty. Implications may be far-reaching.
by Massimo Introvigne
In 2014, a man called George Q. Ricks filed an application for individual contractor registration with the Idaho Bureau of Occupational Licenses (IBOL). The application required Ricks to provide his social security number (SSN). Ricks did not include his SSN in his application because of his religious belief that social security numbers are “a form of the mark, and in substance (essence) the number of the 2-horned beast written of in [the Book of Revelation in] the Holy Bible.”
A few days after Ricks filed his application, IBOL requested again his social security number. Ricks answered by sending IBOL an affidavit describing his religious objection to the use of the SSN as “the mark of the Beast.” IBOL rejected Ricks’ application.
Ricks took its case to the courts, which, up to the Supreme Court of the State of Idaho in a very detailed decision dated March 12, 2019, found against him. The U.S. Supreme Court has now declined to review the case.
Quite apart from Ricks’ interpretation of the SSN, which is not uncommon among fundamentalist Protestants, the case was more important that it may seem, which explains why the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty intervened in support of the Idaho man, who had originally self-represented himself.
Interestingly, the Supreme Court kept the Ricks case on hold while it decided the more well-known case Fulton v. the City of Philadelphia, where it found in favor of Catholic nuns operating a foster care agency that was denied a contract with the City of Philadelphia, because of its religiously motivated refusal to serve same-sex couples. The decision in Fulton was unanimous, but what was not unanimous was the Supreme Court’s decision to circumvent, rather than overrule, its 1990 Smith decision, which had ruled that there is no religious exception for laws that are neutral, generally applicable, and were not passed with the intention to discriminate against a particular religion. The majority of the Court left Smith in place, but ruled that foster care contracting is outside the scope of Smith.
Had the Supreme Court agreed with Justices Alito, Thomas and Gorsuch who favored using Fulton as an opportunity to overrule Smith (Justice Barrett wrote she was also in favor of overruling Smith, but doubted Fulton was the proper case where to do it), even Mr. Ricks’s attack on the SSN as “the mark of the Beast” might have been taken more seriously.
As the Becket Fund said, it was not about the SSN, it was about taking any possible opportunity to persuade the Supreme Court to overrule Smith. It failed in the Ricks case, but there will be other opportunities.