Federal appeals panel rules man’s religious liberty not violated by license law

Wednesday, May 26, 1999

In the face of a religious-liberty challenge, a federal appeals court has upheld a California law that requires state residents to submit Social Security numbers to obtain a driver’s license.

In 1996 the California Department of Motor Vehicles denied Donald Miller a driver’s license renewal because he refused to give the agency his Social Security number. California law requires residents to submit their Social Security numbers on their license applications as a way to help the state in identification, and for collection of child support, taxes, fines or bail. Miller cited religious beliefs for his refusal. He claimed that providing the number to entities other than the Social Security Administration would help create a “caricature” of his identity as an individual, which would be “tantamount to a sin.”

After being denied the license, Miller sued the state, arguing that its action violated several of his fundamental rights, including the right to practice religion freely. U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong disagreed with Miller and ruled in favor of the state.

On May 24, a three-judge panel for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s ruling in Miller v. Reed.

Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1990 ruling in Employment Div., v. Smith, the 9th Circuit ruled that a government action or law that is intended to apply to all and does not single out religious persons does not amount to a violation of the free exercise of religion.

“The right of the free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes),” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority in Smith. “The government’s ability to enforce generally applicable prohibitions of socially harmful conduct, like its ability to carry out other aspects of public policy, cannot depend on measuring the effects of a governmental action on a religious objector’s spiritual development.”

Writing for the unanimous 9th Circuit panel, Judge David R. Thompson concluded that the California law was a “valid and neutral law of general applicability” and its enforcement “does not violate Miller’s rights to the free exercise of religion.”

Miller’s attorney told the Associated Press that he did not know if he would ask the entire 9th Circuit to reconsider the case.