RELIGIOUS FREEDOM RESTORATION ACTS
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
federal legislation. They may possibly be able to survive a constitutional challenge.
||California: A similar bill passed the California legislature.
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.
||Connecticut: General Statutes S
or defense authorized when state or political
subdivision burdens a person's exercise of religion" has been passed and signed
into law. 3
||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.
||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.
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."
||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
||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."
||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
"Keeping Faith: A series examining both sides of a state-by-state effort to
enact laws augmenting protection of religious freedom," at: http://www.freedomforum.org/religion/series/
A copy of the California bill AB1617, as amended 1998-MAR-19, is at: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/bill/asm/ab_1601-1650/
The text of Connecticut's RFRA law is at: http://www.religious-freedom.org/rflawct.html
Jeremy Leaming, "Illinois Legislature passes religious freedom protection act,"
Jeremy Leaming, "Illinois Lawmakers pass religious-freedom bill despite
governor's concerns," at: http://www.freedomforum.org/religion/1998/12/3illrfra.asp
The text of Rhode Island's RFRA law is at: http://www.religious-freedom.org/rflawri.html
Bettina Krause, "Oklahoma passes religious liberty law,"
Adventist News Network, 2000-JUN-13, at: http://www.adventist.org/news/data/2000/5/960924458/
- AANEWS news release, American Atheists, 1999-FEB-12
Copyright © 1998, and 1999 to 2002 incl., by Ontario Consultants
on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2002-DEC-18
Author: B.A. Robinson