Same-sex marriage is now legal in 35 states due to a recent series of victories in the courts, legislatures, and ballot boxes. In response, some state legislatures are trying to come up with ways to push back against this trend.
Most state legislatures don’t come back into session for a few months, yet legislators are already announcing their intent to introduce so-called “religious freedom” bills for 2015. These bills would introduce identical or even broader versions of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)—the law that was distorted to allow corporations like Hobby Lobby to use religion to ignore the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. Legislators are advocating for these bills by claiming they will create broad religious exemptions from nondiscrimination laws.
AU strongly believes in religious freedom and appropriately tailored religious accommodations. Despite the fact that these bills claim to protect religious freedom, in reality they are a threat to civil rights. The language in these bills is too broad and unclear, and could open the door for serious and even harmful unintended consequences, including nullifying discrimination, public safety, and health laws.
Several states pushed RFRA bills in 2014, but experienced passionate backlash from civil rights groups and the business community: even the NFL threatened to change the location of the 2015 Super Bowl if the RFRA bill passed in Arizona. The bill still passed the legislature, but Governor Brewer thankfully vetoed it.
At least five states have announced religious freedom bills for the upcoming session: Georgia, Michigan, Texas, North Carolina, and Utah.
Legislators in Georgia tried to pass a state RFRA bill last year, but failed when it got caught in the wake of the controversy surrounding the Arizona bill and hearings overrun with attendees opposing the discriminatory bill. Businesses like Delta, Coca-Cola, and Home Depot also opposed the state bill, realizing that, as major corporations in the state of Georgia, a law that would allow businesses not to serve large segments of the population might not be beneficial for their companies, or the image of tolerance they push. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce has already vowed to oppose any “religious liberty” bill introduced this session.
Nonetheless, State Senator Josh McKoon plans to re-introduce the bill.
Michigan House Speaker Jase Bolger is trying a different strategy. He has agreed to support House Bill 5959, which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace, housing market, and places of public accommodation, but only if it is paired with his religious exemption bill, House Bill 5958. Civil rights groups have announced opposition to this deal both because of the religious exemption and because the nondiscrimination bill fails to protect gender identity.
State Senator Donna Campbell has proposed a constitutional amendment that would provide businesses with what some call a “license to discriminate.” As Texas already has a state RFRA, which passed back in 1999, this constitutional amendment would be both unnecessary and potentially harmful.
Sen. Campbell proposed this constitutional amendment in 2013, but due to abundant opposition from both sides it did not move. As this year’s bill is nearly the same amendment, we hope the outcome will be the same.
Due to the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in North Carolina, this year’s “religious freedom” bill specifically targets marriage. Senator Phil Berger announced that he would introduce a bill to allow magistrates and their employees to refuse to officiate same-sex weddings based on religious beliefs, as some magistrates have already quit their jobs to avoid marrying same-sex couples. Government employees, however, are employees of the state and should abide by the laws of the state. They should be prepared to serve everybody equally regardless of their personal beliefs. For example, magistrates should not be able to refuse to officiate a same-sex marriage just as they should not be able to refuse an interracial marriage, even if that reason is based in religion.
Although no state RFRA bills have been announced in Utah, Governor Herbert stated that he expects the legislature will discuss a RFRA-type bill this session now that marriage equality has come to the state. In fact, Representative Jacob Anderegg already announced that he plans to introduce a constitutional amendment with language similar to the North Carolina bill that would ensure that clergy and officials can refuse to perform same-sex marriages.
AU will continue to watch for more RFRA bills as conservative state legislatures continue their losing battles against marriage equality. Stay up to date by signing up for AU email alerts.