U.S. Supreme Court rebuffs 'Number of the Beast' religious dispute

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, U.S., June 14, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

WASHINGTON, June 28 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a religious rights case involving an Idaho man who refused to provide the state his Social Security number in a job-related filing because he said it was "the number of the beast" - an ominous biblical reference.

The justices let stand a lower court ruling against a man named George Ricks who in a lawsuit against Idaho demanded an exemption due to his Christian beliefs from the state's requirement that he provide his Social Security number to apply to work as a state contractor.

The appeal had been on hold while the Supreme Court considered a separate religious rights case involving a Catholic Church-affiliated agency that sued after the city of Philadelphia refused to place children for foster care with the organization because it barred same-sex couples from applying to be foster parents. The court ruled unanimously on June 17 in favor of Catholic Social Services but left certain legal questions unresolved. read more

Ricks, like Catholic Social Services, had asked the Supreme Court to overturn a 1990 Supreme Court ruling, called Employment Division v. Smith, that limited the ability of people to seek such exemptions. Religious rights advocates have said that ruling infringes on the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

A Social Security number is a nine-digit number issued to all U.S. citizens and permanent residents and commonly is used in government documents for identification purposes.

Ricks said in court papers he believes, based on a section of the apocalyptic final book of the Bible's New Testament, the Book of Revelation, that his Social Security number is "the number of the 2-horned beast," an entity mentioned in the text.

"By forcing me to disclose an SSN (Social Security number) in order for one to buy my labor or for me to sell my labor, is in essence the number of the beast and the card is a form of the mark," Ricks wrote.

Ricks initially represented himself in his lawsuit. His new lawyers at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a conservative legal group dedicated to religious rights issues, said he believes it is "morally wrong to participate in a governmental universal identification system, especially to buy or sell goods and services."

The state rejected his 2014 application to register as a contractor in which he noted his objection, with officials saying the number is required under state law.

Ricks sued in 2016 but lost both at the district court and before the Idaho Court of Appeals, which said that the requirement for the Social Security number was a "neutral law of general applicability."

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham

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Thomson Reuters

Washington-based reporter covering legal affairs with a focus on the U.S. Supreme Court, a Pulitzer Prize winner for team project on how the defense of qualified immunity protects police officers accused of excessive force.