This op-ed was originally published at The Huffington Post.
Over the last twenty years, 19 states have passed laws modeled on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was enacted in 1993 with broad bipartisan support. But just this year, almost the same number, 15, have seen such bills introduced, generating enormous controversy across the country, particularly in Indiana where Gov. Mike Pence signed the new state RFRA into law.
Why the huge uptick now? As one of those involved in the original drafting and passage of RFRA in 1993, I think it's a combination of the perceived dangers to the far right from the move towards LGBT marriage equality and the perceived opportunity created just last year by the 5-4 Supreme Court's rewriting of RFRA in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.
Even before the Supreme Court agreed to decide the marriage equality issue, the far right has highlighted the supposed dangers to small businesses like bakers and florists who do not want to serve LGBT couples because of religious objections. Under RFRA as passed in 1993, and under the protection from the First Amendment's Free Exercise doctrine that it was meant to restore, RFRA wouldn't have offered much help. First, neither had been applied to non-religious corporations, which had never been thought to have religious freedom rights. Second, it would have been very hard to argue that a neutral law banning discrimination against LGBT people would have created a "substantial burden" on actual religious exercise, which is required to qualify for a RFRA-type exemption. For example, in one case the Supreme Court rejected the claim that requiring federal welfare recipients to submit social security numbers was such a burden even when it conflicted with an applicant's religious beliefs. And even if such a burden were created by obeying an anti-discrimination or other general law, pre-Hobby Lobby law would not have helped a religious claimant: as the Court ruled in rejecting a religious exemption to a requirement that a religious farmer withhold social security taxes, such an exemption would improperly "operate to impose the employer's religious faith on the employees" and others.
But then came Hobby Lobby.
In that case, writing for a bare majority of the Court, Justice Alito ruled that religious objections by a corporation's owners exempted them under RFRA from providing contraceptive coverage through insurance to employees under the Affordable Care Act. As Justice Ginsburg explained in dissent, rather than interpreting RFRA to restore prior case law, the majority interpreted it as going beyond prior Court decisions to maximize benefits to religious claimants. In particular, she explained, the Court effectively re-wrote RFRA so that it could be invoked by for-profit corporations, and so that the original law protecting individuals against a "substantial burden" on the exercise of religion was transformed to allow claims by a business owner that complying with a neutral law offended their religious beliefs in some way. Under the majority's view, Justice Ginsburg suggested, RFRA could be interpreted to "require exemptions" in cases where religious beliefs were used to justify actions that discriminated on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Pointedly, Justice Alito responded only that "prohibitions on racial discrimination" would be safe from a RFRA exemption claim, but said nothing about gender or LGBT status.
So for far-right activists and legislators concerned about LGBT marriage equality and other rights, Hobby Lobby provided the perfect opportunity: pass state RFRA laws and effectively grant a religious exemption claim from LGBT anti-discrimination laws and local ordinances, based on the Court's re-writing of RFRA's language. Indeed, in communicating with supporters about the Indiana RFRA law, the far-right Family Research Council specifically called it the "Hobby Lobby bill."
Even better, rhetoric directed at outsiders could be cloaked in general language about protecting religious freedom, not attacking LGBT rights. Supporters could even invoke Democratic supporters of RFRA like President Clinton and claim that neither RFRA nor its state counterparts had been interpreted to allow discrimination, as Indiana Gov. Pence has tried to do. These claims ignore the fact that it wasn't until last year that the Supreme Court effectively rewrote the language in RFRA so that it was transformed from a shield for religious liberty into a sword against anti-discrimination protections. And previous supporters like President Clinton have made clear their opposition to this year's state RFRA proposals.
Under pressure, the neutral façade of recent state RFRA proposals has crumbled. When pushed to amend a state RFRA proposal in Georgia to make clear that it could not be used against anti-discrimination ordinances, a Georgia legislator admitted that one of the reasons for the bill was to allow it to be invoked by the small business owner who had religious objections to providing services to an LGBT couple. And when an amendment was added in the Georgia House Judiciary Committee to state that the RFRA bill was not to be used against discrimination laws, the bill was promptly tabled on March 26, with a supporter stating that the amendment would "gut" the bill.
As of now, the fate of RFRA bills in Georgia and elsewhere is uncertain and Gov. Pence has asked the legislature for an amendment to "clarify" that Indiana's RFRA law cannot be used to deny services to anyone. That would be a welcome step - one that flies in the face of the clear intent of some of the bill's backers, which was clearly to enshrine such a "right" for Indiana businesses. Language has been adopted elsewhere to make clear that state RFRAs cannot be used against anti-discrimination bills; such a provision is currently in Texas' RFRA, although there is a proposal to remove it. Before Hobby Lobby, such language might not have been necessary. After Hobby Lobby, it is crucial.
This op-ed by Rev. Timothy McDonald III, , was originally published at The Huffington Post.
Last week, a bill disguised as a "religious liberty" measure that would give a green light to discrimination was passed by the Georgia Senate and will now go to the House.
As a Baptist pastor, I feel called to weigh in on a proposal that is supposedly designed to protect religious rights in my state. I fully support every person's constitutionally-protected right of the free exercise of religion. The right to pray to whatever God you believe in and freely practice your religion is a fundamental one, and one that must be protected.
But I do not support this bill, which is not a true effort to protect First Amendment rights. And the fact that supporters in the state Senate quickly and unexpectedly brought it up in committee when no Democrats were present makes me wonder if even proponents aren't so sure of its merit.
The proposed bill is modeled on a national religious freedom bill that passed in 1993, and supporters claim that it would shield people of all religions from government intrusion. In reality, this is a bill that threatens to allow businesses and individuals to simply flout the laws they don't like. It threatens to turn "religious liberty" law from a shield to guard individual liberties into a sword to bring harm to others.
For example, what happens if medical workers, citing religious beliefs, decide that they won't treat gay or transgender people? If business owners decide that they won't serve Muslims or interracial couples? If landlords decide they won't rent to single women? Beyond anti-discrimination protections, what happens if individuals or business owners claim they are exempt from any number of laws they disagree with? What happens, for example, if employers decide that paying their workers a minimum wage goes against their religious beliefs? Do we want to live in a society where your legal rights depend on the religious beliefs of others in the community?
Basic rights and equality should never yield to discrimination.
Other religious leaders here in Georgia aren't fooled, either. Working with a group of more than 160 clergy across the state, we have been asking our elected officials to abandon this misguided project, urging them not to pass any so-called "religious freedom" legislation that could lead to widespread discrimination. Handing people the "right" to use the mantle of religious liberty to harm others? Not in our name.
It's clear that rather than fixing a problem, as good public policy should, this bill would create problems, and often for those most vulnerable among us.
Even former state attorney general Michael Bowers, who once fought in favor of anti-gay "sodomy" laws, has called the bill "nothing but an excuse to discriminate," saying it is "ill-conceived, unnecessary, mean-spirited, and deserving of a swift death in the General Assembly."
I agree. My faith tells me that I should stand up for the marginalized. That I should speak out against proposals that could deny basic rights to others -- especially when it's being done in the name of religion.
In an op-ed printed in the Portland Press Herald this weekend, retired congressman Barney Frank offers a sharp critique of the far right Supreme Court under John Roberts. Explicitly noting the importance of the Court in defining law that affects all citizens, Frank makes clear not only that courts matter, but everyday citizens have a hand in how these courts are shaped.
Reviewing the impact of recent Supreme Court decisions — from overturning “more than 100 years of federal and state efforts to regulate the role of money in campaigns” to declaring that corporations have the right to religious freedom under RFRA—Frank states that “the court has ended this term with a barrage against laws it does not like” (emphasis added).
…The Supreme Court is now strongly inclined to impose conservative ideology via Constitutional interpretation on a broad range of public policy. It is true that Kennedy and to some extent Roberts occasionally deviate from this, but Justice Samuel Alito has surpassed even Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in his ideological purity.
The relevance of this to the next two elections is very clear. Four of the sitting justices are in their late 70s or older. This means that there is a strong possibility that President Obama will have a chance to appoint another justice before his term expires, but his ability to do so will be determined not simply by the health of the justices in question, but by the composition of the U.S. Senate. The increasing partisanship in the Senate, the continued virulent influence of the tea party and recent history strongly suggest that even if a vacancy occurs, Obama will be prevented from filling it (emphasis added).
Frank refers to the unceasing Republican obstructionism and argues courts are critical for defining laws that affect Americans on a daily basis, highlighting the importance of this year’s midterm elections. As he concludes in this piece,
This makes it highly likely that among the issues that will be determined in the next senatorial and presidential election will be the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court. Voters should act accordingly.
Yesterday, People For the American Way members participated in a special telebriefing to discuss the Supreme Court term that wrapped up this Monday and to unpack some of the critical decisions handed down by the Court this year. The call, which was kicked off by PFAW President Michael Keegan and moderated by Director of Communications Drew Courtney, featured Senior Fellows Jamie Raskin and Elliot Mincberg, as well as Executive Vice President Marge Baker.
Discussing Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Raskin explained the case and the damaging implications of the 5-4 decision. Highlighting the “extreme and extravagant” claim made by Hobby Lobby that its religious rights were violated, Raskin described the court’s decision that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act covers “closely held” corporations and noted that this creates a “dangerous expansion of corporate personhood.” Raskin described how this exemplifies the Court in the Citizens United era, where the far right Justices regularly find ways to rule so they can enhance the power of corporations.
Mincberg also provided background on RFRA and explained how the law was distorted and expanded in this decision far beyond what anyone had in mind when it passed by an enormous bipartisan majority 20 years ago.
Members wanted to know what actions can be taken to help address the imbalance in the Court and the troubling decisions made by the Roberts’ Court in the last few years. Baker addressed the issue of rebalancing the Court, emphasizing the importance of presidential elections on the Court’s make-up.
Listen to the full audio of the telebriefing for more information.
Crowds of activists and advocacy groups gathered outside while the Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Inc. case.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not shy away from asking difficult questions that demonstrate the broad implications this case could have. Justices Sotomayor and Kagan voiced concerns regarding the implications of a ruling for the first time in our nation’s history that for-profit corporations have religious rights. Both justices questioned whether this decision would allow companies to deny access to coverage of not only contraceptive methods, but also of other lifesaving procedures employers might object to on religious grounds—like blood transfusions or vaccines.
The Huffington Post quotes Justice Kagan as saying, “There are quite a number of medical treatments that could be religiously objected to… Everything would be piecemeal, nothing would be uniform.”
Pushing the issue further, Justice Sotomayor asked, “How are courts supposed to know whether a corporation holds a particular religious belief?”
Similarly, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act
was a law that was passed overwhelmingly [by] both houses of Congress. People from all sides of the political spectrum voted for it. It seems strange that there would have been that tremendous uniformity if it means [corporations are covered].
[T]here was an effort to adopt a … specific conscience amendment in 2012, and the Senate rejected that… That amendment would have enabled secular employers and insurance providers to deny coverage on the basis of religious beliefs or moral convictions. It was specifically geared to secular employers and insurance providers. And that…was rejected.
Justice Kagan noted that RFRA was considered non-controversial when it passed, an unlikely reaction if it had been understood to open the door to employers citing religious objections to complying with laws relating to sex discrimination, minimum wage, family leave, or child labor.
Justice Kagan also noted that women are “quite tangibly harmed” when employers don’t provide contraceptive coverage. This decision, however, could have far-reaching implications beyond women’s reproductive rights since this case deals with some of the same core issues seen in “right to discriminate” bills like Arizona’s, as we pointed out yesterday morning.