Legislative Preview: States Are Preparing for More RFRA Battles

As the states gear up to reconvene their legislative sessions after the New Year, we can expect to see many states pursuing Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) legislation. We often focus on states without state-level RFRAs that attempt to pass bills to create a new law; for example, last year both Indiana and Arkansas passed new RFRA legislation, and the sponsor of Georgia’s bill to create a RFRA has said he will introduce legislation in 2016. However, state legislative activity is not limited merely to creating new RFRA laws. Even in states that currently have RFRA laws, we anticipate that there will be increasing attempts to expand these state RFRAs.

Florida is one state that has already filed a bill for its 2016 legislative session, which would greatly expand its current RFRA law. HB 401 would amend the current law, which mirrors the federal RFRA, not only to include “closely held” for-profit corporations, but also to provide broad religious exemptions for religiously affiliated corporations, healthcare providers, and child-placing agencies. If HB 401 were to pass, it would allow for broad discrimination from corporations and government-funded entities, and would endanger the health and safety of many Floridians.

Another state that has pre-filed RFRA legislation is Oklahoma. Its bill, SB 898, would expand its current RFRA to allow for litigation between private parties. RFRA was never meant to apply in such a manner – it was always intended to protect individuals from government action that substantially burdens their religious beliefs. If SB 898 were to pass, individuals in the state could engage in discrimination and invoke RFRA as a defense.

As states continue to try to enact new RFRA bills or expand current RFRA laws, it’s clear that the motivating factor behind these bills is to create new avenues for individuals and businesses to discriminate on the basis of religion. We will continue to oppose these types of legislation. For more on RFRA, check out our FAQ page.

Elise Helgesen Aguilar

Elise Helgesen Aguilar is the Federal Legislative Counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Elise graduated cum laude from the University of Florida Law School in 2011. There, she was Executive Articles Editor for the Journal of Law and Public Policy as well as the founder and president of the University of Florida ACLU. After law school, Elise worked on voting rights and electoral reform as a Legal Fellow with FairVote. She also worked on successful Congressional campaigns in both Florida and Virginia. Elise graduated cum laude from the College of William and Mary in 2008 with a B.A. in Government. She is originally from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.