The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly Of The 2016 State Sessions, Part 1: The Good

Image by Getty Images

Image by Getty Images

Most state sessions have come to an end, making now a good time to take a look back at some of the bills Americans United worked to oppose under our project, Protect Thy Neighbor (PTN). It is also a good time for us to thank you, our supporters, for making a difference.

Since January, we have monitored more than 125 bills that would allow religion to be used as an excuse to harm others. Fortunately, only a small number of these bills were signed into law and those of you who spoke out against them, whether by sending a message to your state legislators or sharing Facebook posts and tweets, helped make this happen.

Over the next two days, we will be reviewing the good, the bad, and the ugly of the 2016 state sessions. Today’s post will cover the good— harmful bills that were stopped.  Tomorrow’s post will be dedicated to the bad and the ugly of the state sessions.

 The Good

No New RFRAs Adopted

None of the nearly 30 bills in 14 states that would have created a new state Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) or would have amended an existing RFRA passed. (RFRA bills in Michigan and North Carolina are still alive as their legislatures are still in session.) For those of you who have been following along, you know that state RFRAs create potential religious exemptions to each and every state and local law and are now usually accompanied by anti-LGBT rhetoric. Indeed, because of this, Indiana faced fierce backlash after the passage of its RFRA last year. Yet Indiana’s troubles did not deter state legislators across the country from introducing their own RFRA bills this year. It soon became clear, however, that what happened in Indiana was just the beginning—this year there was an overwhelming number of bills, including RFRAs, that would have sanctioned discrimination in the name of religion.

  • Indiana, New Mexico, and Colorado – Recognizing the controversy these bills bring, the legislatures in these states quickly dismissed the issue. In Indiana, for example, when the RFRA bill was heard in its first committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee Chair allowed the bill sponsor to present the bill, but did not allow a debate or a vote to advance the bill out of committee. In New Mexico, due to strong opposition from state lawmakers, the RFRA was considered “dead on arrival.” And in Colorado, legislators voted to indefinitely postpone the bill after its first committee hearing.    
  • West VirginiaHB 4012, quickly made its way through the state House, but not without fierce debate. The West Virginia Senate then amended the bill to prohibit it from being used to trump existing nondiscrimination laws or ordinances. HB 4012’s proponents, however, claimed that this amendment gutted the bill. As a result, the bill faced opposition from all sides and the Senate voted it down 27-7.   

Two Vetoes

The legislatures in Georgia and Virginia each passed harmful “religious liberty” bills, but, thankfully, the governors in these states vetoed them. In Georgia, HB 757, contained several objectionable provisions, including language that would sanction taxpayer-funded discrimination. Because the Georgia legislature fiercely debated similar legislation last year, advocates were ready this year and provided a model for other states facing similar fights. More than 500 businesses joined a coalition to oppose bills like this and faith leaders also lent their voices.

Ultimately, Governor Nathan Deal vetoed the bill, explaining:

"I do not think we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith based community in Georgia of which my family and I are a part of for all of our lives."

Two days later, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed SB 41. This bill would have allowed private businesses, government contractors and grantees, and even government employees to discriminate against many Virginians including same-sex couples, unmarried couples, single mothers, and those who have had sex outside of marriage.

Governor McAuliffe explained:

Although couched as a “religious freedom” bill, this legislation is nothing more than an attempt to stigmatize . . . styled in a manner that prefers one religious viewpoint—that marriage can only validly exist between a man and a woman—over all other viewpoints.  Such a dynamic is not only unconstitutional, it equates to discrimination under the guise of religious freedom.

The Filibuster

Missouri’s SJR 39, would have taken the drastic step of beginning the process of amending the state constitution.  The amendment was astonishingly broad—it would have allowed any individual, business, non-profit entity, and taxpayer-funded organization to ignore laws that conflict with their “sincere religious belief concerning marriage between two persons of the same sex.”

When the measure reached the Senate floor, eight state senators launched a nearly 40-hour-long filibuster to block the measure from a vote. Despite these valiant efforts, SJR 39 eventually passed the Senate, but the filibuster had garnered national attention and spurred greater opposition ranging from members of the public to Missouri-based and international businesses. After a marathon hearing and a postponed vote, the House committee ultimately had a tie vote and failed to advance the bill.   


Although there’s much to celebrate from this year’s state legislative sessions, not everything has a positive outcome. Tomorrow, we will review the harmful bills that were signed into law and alarming trends in part two of our recap of all that was good, bad, and ugly in state legislation.

We’d also like to thank you for helping us protect our neighbors. You made a difference and together we’ve seen harmful bills defeated raised alarm about the bad and the ugly. We will continue to monitor the state legislatures that remain in session, as well as follow what’s going on in Congress, federal agencies, and the White House. Sign up here to join the fight.

Read Part 2 of The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly Of The 2016 State Sessions.