On the first point, I will provide no spoilers, mostly because you wouldn’t believe them. The rise and fall of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers is a staggeringly improbable mélange of religion, New Age psychology, land-use and constitutional law, group sex, credit-card scams, xenophobia and immigration terrors, fundamentalism, election fraud, germ warfare, terror bombing, assassination squads, and Putin-style poisoning, all enacted against the haunting background of the Oregon high desert. Viewers will spend the six hours of the film on the edge of their seats, and finish the final episode with a combination of relief—it could have been worse!—and sadness that such an astonishing story is over.
On the second point, the current constitutional doctrine of “free exercise” arises out of the Smith case, which I spent nearly a decade investigating as a professor at the University of Oregon. Smith arose when two men, one Klamath Indian and the other an Anglo, applied to the state for unemployment compensation. Both had been alcohol and drug-abuse counselors at a private social-services agency in Roseburg, Oregon. The Anglo man, Galen Black, attended a tipi ceremony of the Native American Church and ate some of the sacred peyote. When he told his bosses what he had done, he was fired on the spot. Enraged by the insult to Native culture, the second man, a Klamath named Al Smith, defiantly visited a tipi ceremony and took the sacrament. He was fired as well.
The two men applied for unemployment—and the state of Oregon drew an absolute line in the sand. No compensation to “drug” users, it said. The state supreme court ordered it to pay; the state took the case to the Supreme Court. The justices in Washington sent the case back to the state courts; the state supreme court once more told the state to pay. Religious leaders, tribal officials, American Indian activists, and the relatively tolerant Oregon public begged the state to drop the case—but the state’s attorney general, Dave Frohnmayer, insisted on going back to the U.S. Supreme Court.
At this point, without any warning, the high court rewrote the entire law of “free exercise.” From now on, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, that part of the First Amendment provided no protection for religious believers confronting the power of the state. “It may fairly be said that leaving accommodation to the political process will place at a relative disadvantage those religious practices that are not widely engaged in,” Scalia wrote, “but that unavoidable consequence of democratic government must be preferred to a system in which each conscience is a law unto itself or in which judges weigh the social importance of all laws against the centrality of all religious beliefs.”
This aggressive, sloppy, rhadamanthine decision stirred alarm among the whole religious community. A coalition of religious groups formed to reverse the result. Its first act was to exclude peyote religion from the coalition’s ranks, signaling Congress that only respectable religions deserved protection; the group then successfully pressed for passage of RFRA, and state “little RFRAs” as well. It was the federal RFRA which the current Court’s conservative majority used to hold that the Hobby Lobby corporation could cite their stockholders’ religion to opt out of the contraceptive-coverage requirement of the Affordable Care Act. It is in many cases state RFRAs that are being employed to limit the rights of LGBT people and same-sex married couples.