The Answer to Smokers' Prayers?

Smoking was officially banned July 1 in Dutch bars and cafes. Since then, smokers have started flocking to a new religious movement in the Netherlands known as the "The Only and Universal Smokers Church of God," or the "Smokers Church." Michiel Eijsbouts, who founded the church in 2001, insists that the new smoking law does not apply to members of the Smokers Church. He says church members have a right to express their religion and they do it through smoking. Members of the Smokers Church profess to believe in a trinity of smoke, fire and ash, and their holy rite to their god is honored by smoking. People who sign up to join the church pay three British pounds and get a card that proves their religious affiliation to authorities. So far, the church boasts over 2,000 members, and over 100 bars and cafes have recently applied to the church to be considered "religious institutions." Mr. Eijsbouts said, "Converting people was not easy until the smoking ban, but now people are flocking to the church."


I don't know how religious freedom is handled in the UK or The Netherlands, but, here in the United States, our Constitution's Free Exercise Clause does not protect supposedly religious activities that would be otherwise illegal or injurious to others. Smoking laws in this country are designed to protect workers as well as the general public, and health and safety requirements that apply to places of public accommodations also apply to religious institutions, although, for logistical reasons, they may not be as aggressively enforced.

Yes, we do have snake handling cults, polygamous communes, and other kook groups that claim some kind of religious exemption, but, if they are breaking the law of the land, their activities are not protected. Were that not the case, if the Mafia were to incorporate as a religion, the code of Omerta, or silence, would be covered by priest-penitant privilege.

One way to prevent business establishments from claiming a religious exemption is to license the activities, as well as the establishments. If a bar re-incorporates as a church, it should still need a liquor license in order to sell liquor, a food license in order to sell food, and would be subject to health, safety, and labor laws in order to hire employees and provide services to the public. These licenses could be granted contingent upon other requirements, like a ban on smoking, which, although in conflict with this new religion's stated religious doctrine, is consistent with public policy, compelling public interest considerations, and the right to breathe, which is as fundamental as the right to freely worship, if not more so.

Nice try, Smokers' Church. Close, but no cigar(ette).