This month, state legislatures across the country will gather to open their legislative sessions for the year. We expect that we will see many state bills that would allow individuals and corporations to use religion as an excuse to harm others. In fact, several such bills have already been filed in various states. This week on The Shield we will highlight and explain many of the bills that have already been filed. Be sure to check our Legislation Tracker to find out if a bill has been filed in your state and read The Shield for more in depth information about those bills.
Today, we examine Florida’s HB 401. HB 401 would add a new section to Florida’s existing Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Adopted in 1998, the state’s RFRA already provides substantial protections to people who want to challenge a law that they believe burdens their religion. The current law restricts the state from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion unless the state can prove it has a compelling interest to do so and it has employed the least restrictive means in achieving that compelling interest. In fact, the law might already go too far, as it lacks language prohibiting it from being used to trump non-discrimination and health protections.
The language added by HB 401 would go even further. In circumstances involving businesses, health care providers, and child placement agencies, the current RFRA test wouldn’t even apply and the state would be required to provide a religious exemption no matter what.
If passed, any healthcare provider could refuse to provide any needed healthcare service so long as it wouldn’t cause “imminent danger of loss of life or serious bodily injury.” The provider would not even have to provide information about the service or provide you a referral. Entire hospital systems and nursing homes would be granted the same religious exemption if they are affiliated with a religious institution, which is particularly troubling considering that in 2012, religiously affiliated hospitals made up seven of the ten largest nonprofit health care systems in the nation.
Under HB 401, child placement agencies could use religion as a reason to refuse to place children with certain parents, even if that placement would be in the best interest of the child. Children could be denied loving, stable, and permanent homes because the agency holds a religious objection to parents who are interfaith, same-sex, previously divorced, or of a different faith than the agency. The Florida legislature tried to pass a bill, HB 7111, with similar language last session. HB 7111, would have allowed child placement agencies to deny service to people based on their religious or moral convictions. That bill passed in the House, but died in a Senate committee.
Finally, HB 401 would allow private businesses to refuse to provide any service or product unless “the custom product or service places the consumer in imminent danger of loss of life or serious bodily injury.” This would permit businesses to disregard existing local public accommodations laws in cities throughout the Florida in the name of religion.
To track this and other bills, visit the Legislation Tracker!