As state legislative sessions are in full swing across the country, several are considering bills on issues related to religious liberty. Here is a quick rundown of a few that caught my eye:
In Georgia, a legislator has introduced a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) bill. The federal RFRA, passed in 1993, prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person’s religious exercise unless that burden is necessary to further a compelling state interest. Although numerous states have enacted versions of the law (with varying degrees of fidelity to the original), in recent years RFRA proposals have been cast by proponents and opponents alike as a means of advancing religious exercise over interests protected by nondiscrimination laws. Some bills have included troubling language that would tip the scales of RFRA’s careful balance in favor of a religious claimant. As introduced, SB180 mirrors the federal law, setting the stage for a potentially contentious debate.
The Georgia legislature is no stranger to RFRA controversy. In 2016, then-Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed legislation that included a version of RFRA, saying some of the language “could give rise to state-sanctioned discrimination.” A couple of years later, current Gov. Brian Kemp campaigned on a promise to veto any religious freedom legislation that strayed from federal law, promising he would only sign a religious freedom bill that is the “mirror image” of the federal RFRA, presumably like the one just introduced. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, in Texas, a trio of bills are designed to augment religious liberty protections by expanding the list of religious holidays available to state employees (HB 1882), the list of religious holidays that cannot coincide with state academic tests and exam days (HB 1883), and the faiths whose leaders are eligible to officiate marriage ceremonies (HB 1884).
Statehouse reporter Ali Linan reports on how House Bill 1884 would expand the current law:
Currently, only Christian ministers, Jewish rabbis and certain judges are authorized to conduct marriage ceremonies. This bill would ensure that everyone, regardless of their religious practice, can be married by their faith leader, state leaders said.
“Religious freedom is one of the most important and fundamental rights guaranteed to us in our Constitution. It’s more than just the right to worship. The right to dignity and autonomy for every person is the right to openly express our faith and contribute to the spiritual richness of society,” [State Rep. Salman] Bhojani said.
Linan adds that similar bills introduced in the last session died in committee.
Lastly, in South Carolina, a bill called the “Live and Let Live Act” would bar the state from taking any action against a religious organization, person, or closely held corporation that declines to provide services on the basis of their religious beliefs about marriage and gender identity.