Morrison: Understanding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Posted by: Jessica Baker  | Friday, March 27, 2015

The truth is the most important part of any policy discussion. Whether the topic is education, economic development, energy efficiency or any of the other issues we deal with at the state level, a productive conversation cannot be had if the facts are not at the center of the debate.

Unfortunately, many of the facts concerning Senate Enrolled Act 101, known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or RFRA, have been distorted by both sides on this issue. For those opposed, the result has been a narrative that misconstrues the mechanics of the legislation and has ultimately developed a message that the Legislature has created a law that somehow encourages and legalizes discrimination. That message is completely ungrounded.

First and foremost, what does RFRA do? It establishes a judicial standard of review that will provide the courts with clear guidance on how to resolve any matters that come forth surrounding religious freedom. RFRA protects the rights of everyone, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. This bill is about prohibiting a governmental entity from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion. It only applies to government action, not citizen to citizen.

A quick example, in 2012 a court determined that RFRA protected the outreach ministry of a group of Philadelphia churches, ruling that the city could not bar them from feeding homeless individuals. Along with practical examples, it is equally important to look at the history behind RFRA.

The federal RFRA was signed into law in 1993 by former President Bill Clinton and was supported almost unanimously in both the House and Senate. After a 1997 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which stated that the federal statute did not apply to the states, the states started to take it upon themselves to pass their own version of RFRA, or develop case law that would address the religious freedom cases working their way through the court systems.

Since that 1997 ruling, 19 states have codified RFRA into law and 11 others have developed case law. It is also worth noting that in 1998, then Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, also voted in favor of the bill and helped pass Illinois’ version of RFRA. So, RFRA was already well-established federal law and accepted state law in 30 other states; Indiana now being the 31st.

During this discussion, I have heard outlandish claims concerning the effects of this law, mainly about the issue of civil rights. In response to these claims, I would like to pose a question; for the past 22 years, where in the country is RFRA being used and approved by the courts as a legal defense to violate someone’s civil rights? With sixty percent of the states in this country, along with the federal government, having this law, no case exists where civil rights are being stripped with RFRA as the law allowed it to happen.

Also, nowhere in this law, which is only three pages long, does Indiana give anyone the right to discriminate against another person. This law does quite the opposite; it protects your religious freedom from a government entity overstepping its bounds. Visit iga.in.gov for more information about this law.

As I said before, facts are important and they are the foundation of any policy discussion. I hope that the facts that I have presented you with can move this discussion from the hypothetical and inaccurate narrative towards the fact based legal discussion it deserves to be.

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Rep. Alan Morrison represents all of Vermillion County and portions of Clay, Fountain, Parke, Vigo and Warren counties.