People interpret the phrase “religious freedom” wildly differently. We believe it simply means being able to individually choose to practice or support any religion – or no religion – with free will. Indeed, legislation helps ensure religious rights are protected in many situations: to ensure a prisoner has access to kosher meals, to avoid forcing an employee to work on the Sabbath if other options are available, or to fight against the application of zoning laws in ways that forbid building mosques, but not other houses of worship, in certain areas.

Others, however, flip the idea of religious freedom on its head. They use the term to mean that religion can be used to discriminate against others based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. Legislation that promotes this kind of discrimination can cause great harm. For example, these laws would often allow an employer to fire a pregnant woman because she is unwed, a guidance counselor to refuse to counsel a gay student, or a nurse in a hospital to refuse to provide emergency care to a patient because he opposes blood transfusions.

Legislators in Kansas and Kentucky recently passed bills that are meant to protect religious freedom, but allow people to use religion to discriminate, in turn, leading to health, safety, and civil rights problems. Kentucky House Bill 279 and Kansas House Bill 2203 both leave out important nondiscrimination language, allowing people to trump civil rights and nondiscrimination laws in the name of religion. Governor Beshear even vetoed Kentucky’s bill citing unintended legal and civil rights consequences as the reason. Unfortunately, the veto was overridden by the legislature and the bill became law. AU sent an action alert thanking the Governor for vetoing the bill. Governor Brownback signed the Kansas bill into law earlier this month.

Student Groups

Several states have also put forward legislation that would force schools to give university funding and privileges to religiously-affiliated student groups that discriminate in membership and organizational practices. These bills would give religious student groups unprecedented exemptions regarding nondiscrimination policies.

Religious student groups already have unburdened free exercise and speech rights, as well as the same access rights, as all other student groups, making these bills not only offensive, but unnecessary. Colleges and universities should not be forced to subsidize discriminatory policies. Here are some examples of bills AU has opposed:

  • Tennessee HB 534 - AU wrote a letter with Charles Sumner, Nashville Chapter Vice-President, and sent an action alert to its Tennessee members. Unfortunately, it passed both chambers and was sent to Governor Haslam. If you live in Tennessee, tell the Governor to veto HB 534! AU and Charles also submitted letters for similar bills that would extend this student group exemption to private schools as well: HB 1150 and SB 1241.
  • Arkansas HB 2271 - Steve Warnock, President of Arkansas State Chapter, and Jim McCollum, Secretary of Arkansas State Chapter wrote a letter to the House Education Committee opposing the bill.
  • Virginia HB 1617/SB 1074 - AU submitted a letter to Governor McDonnell and sent an action alert urging the Governor to veto this bill. Unfortunately, he signed the bill into law.
  • Idaho SB 1078 - AU sent a letter to Governor Otter asking him to veto the bill, but he signed the bill into law at the end of March.
  • Texas HB 360 would withhold state funding from colleges and universities that require all student groups to adhere to university nondiscrimination policies and accept all students regardless of those students’ beliefs, race, gender, and sexual orientation. Eric Lane, President of San Antonio Chapter, submitted a letter to the House Committee on Higher Education opposing this bill.

Student group exemption bills lead to government-funded discrimination and make college campuses less inclusive and more divisive.

Religious freedom gives individuals the right to hold religious beliefs or adhere to no religion at all. It does not give anyone the right to supersede essential nondiscrimination and civil rights laws. To stay informed about religious freedom issues in the states, sign up to receive AU’s email alerts by visiting the website.