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RFRA Reborn at the State Level

The Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion and the American Civil Liberties Union, have promoted similar RFRA legislation in over a dozen states by early 1999. 1 By mid-2000, religious freedom restoration acts had been enacted in Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, New Mexico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Texas. These laws are very similar to the original federal legislation. They may possibly be able to survive a constitutional challenge. 

Some details:

bullet California: A similar bill passed the California legislature. 2 It includes the familiar phrases "Government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion..." and "Government may substantially burden a person's exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person is...The least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest." It was passed, but vetoed by Governor Pete Wilson because of concern that prisoners would misuse the law.
bullet Connecticut:  General Statutes S 52-571b "Action or defense authorized when state or political subdivision burdens a person's exercise of religion" has been passed and signed into law. 3
bullet Florida: The Florida House passed a state-wide Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1998-APR. Their Senate unanimously passed the same bill in 1998-MAY. As with the federal version of RFRA, the government is required to demonstrate a "compelling interest" before taking any actions which might "burden" the free exercise of religion by faith groups or individuals.

Constitutional scholar, Marci Hamilton, charged "These bills are nothing more than power grabs by organized religion and interest groups...It is a handout to religious persons that they have never been given before and amounts to a preference for religion that undermines... the separation of church and state."

Marty Moore, a deputy in Attorney General Butterworth's office expressed concern that RFRA might give prisoners too much freedom to file harassing lawsuits. Moore commented; "What we have seen from the federal RFRA is a rise in requests by organized hate groups and groups with a propensity for violence to obtain religious exemptions." The Aryan Nations group, a branch of the Christian Identity religion,  is apparently one example.

bullet Illinois: Illinois' RFRA was also modeled after the unconstitutional federal law. It passed the House in early spring of 1988. It passed the Senate on 1998-MAY-19. 4 It was vetoed by Governor Jim Edgar because he wanted to exclude prisoners from being able to exercise rights under the bill. He was concerned "that inmates not be free to pursue gang interests under the guise of religious exercise." The Illinois House overrode the veto by a vote of 110 to 3; the Senate followed suit on 1998-DEC-3 with a vote of 55 to 0. 5 Joseph Levine of the American Jewish Committee commented: "By overriding Gov. Jim Edgar's amendatory veto, which excluded prisoners from religious liberty guarantees provided under RFRA, the Illinois General Assembly has affirmed that everyone in Illinois, including the most powerless and unpopular, has the right to practice his or her religion without undue interference from the government."
bullet Rhode Island:  General Laws of Rhode Island, title 42, Chapter 80.1 is called the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act." It has been signed into law. 6
bullet Virginia: A two year effort to pass a RFRA bill in Virginia failed in 1999-FEB when the bill was returned to committee to die. The Virginia Association of Counties is concerned that the bill does not contain a precise definition of "religion." Executive director James Campbell pointed out: "This means it would be harder to stop people from declaring their own religion with the intention of claiming benefits churches have, such as tax exemption. The way this bill is drawn, most people focus on the traditional religions, but it also protects nontraditional, creative religions that pop up from time to time."
bullet Oklahoma: Governor Keating signed the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act into law in early 2000-JUN. Richard Fenn, associate director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Seventh-day Adventist Church worldwide commented: "This is a significant development. Americans are taking action to protect our country’s most precious freedom–the right to worship according to the dictates of conscience." The Oklahoma Senate added amendments to the bill that diluted the protection guaranteed to convicts and to churches involved in land zoning disputes. 7

One reason for the failure of some of these bills to be signed into law has been concern that state prison inmates would abuse the law and bring forth frivolous complaints.  Another reason is emphasized by critics, such as the American Atheists. They oppose this type of legislation because it mainly favors and protects religious activities by traditional religious organizations (churches, mosques, synagogues, temples). Meanwhile, it discriminates against and marginalizes secular and private religious and spiritual activity. AA National Spokesperson Ron Barrier explained: "It holds government to one standard when dealing with religious groups, while using a more severe benchmark when private individuals, businesses or secular groups are involved.  That's unfair, it's discriminatory, and it clearly favors organized religion." For example, a church-run feeding program for the homeless might be protected against government restrictions, whereas a secular organization might be required to conform to local zoning ordinances. 8

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  1. "Keeping Faith: A series examining both sides of a state-by-state effort to enact laws augmenting protection of religious freedom," at:
  2. A copy of the California bill AB1617, as amended 1998-MAR-19, is at:
  3. The text of Connecticut's RFRA law is at:
  4. Jeremy Leaming, "Illinois Legislature passes religious freedom protection act," at:
  5. Jeremy Leaming, "Illinois Lawmakers pass religious-freedom bill despite governor's concerns," at:
  6. The text of Rhode Island's RFRA law is at:
  7. Bettina Krause, "Oklahoma passes religious liberty law," Adventist News Network, 2000-JUN-13, at:
  8. AANEWS news release, American Atheists, 1999-FEB-12

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Copyright © 1998, and 1999 to 2002 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2002-DEC-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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