With a majority of state legislatures back in session, we’re monitoring newly introduced “religious freedom” legislation that could allow religion to be used to discriminate against our neighbors. This legislation comes in several forms, so we thought we’d give a refresher on the sort of bills we will face. On Tuesday, we talked about state First Amendment Defense Acts; today we’ll explain state Religious Freedom Restoration Acts.
Over the years, RFRAs have unfortunately strayed from their original purpose of protecting religious liberty, especially for religious minorities. Too often, RFRAs are being misconstrued and exploited in ways their original proponents could never have imagined. For example, in Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court said the federal RFRA could be used to deny women access to insurance for birth control.
In the past few years, a handful of states has considered enacting new state RFRAs. The proponents of these bills often make clear that their true intent is to allow discrimination against LGBTQ individuals and families in a range of services, and in some cases, even by for-profit businesses and government officials. These proposals have faced swift and fierce backlash— from businesses concerned about economic outcomes, faith leaders opposed to discrimination in the name of religion, and individuals seeking to protect their neighbors against discrimination and harm.
In 2015, Indiana ignited a national firestorm when it adopted its state RFRA. The law, signed by then-Governor Mike Pence, turned the notion of religious freedom inside out and was aimed at sanctioning discrimination against others. Under national pressure, Governor Pence then persuaded the legislature to adopt a second bill that he claimed would appease the law’s critics. But the “fix” was little more than fig leaf: the current Indiana RFRA still allows religiously affiliated organizations to use RFRA to try to trump nondiscrimination laws and lacks language ensuring that it won’t be used to deny women access to healthcare.
A number of states including Georgia, Florida, and West Virginia introduced RFRA bills in 2016, but all failed to become law. Yet we know that past failures won’t stop state lawmakers from trying again. Through our 2017 state legislative tracker, we will monitor state RFRAs and other dangerous “religious freedom” bills, and provide up-to-date information about new bills, the status of legislation, analysis, letters to legislators, blog posts, action alerts, and more. Check back every Tuesday and Friday for tracker updates. Looking for real-time information? You can follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and share our information far and wide.
This will be a tough year, but we aren’t backing down. Whenever and wherever lawmakers propose “religious freedom” legislation that could harm our neighbors, we will be there to fight back. We hope that you will join us in our fight to protect our neighbors.