A bit of background on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA):
[A national version of RFRA] was passed [in 1993] in response to the 1990 case of Employment Division v. Smith, where the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Oregon law criminalizing the use of peyote even in religious ceremonies. In 1997, however, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a large part of RFRA, citing the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court stated that Congress overstepped its powers with those portions of RFRA. However, individual states may introduce portions of the federal RFRA that were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
This January, the New York State Legislature will be voting on its version of the bill.
The Albany-based Institute for Humanist Studies gives excellent background on the state and national versions of RFRA as well as its position on the legislation over here:
The name of this bill suggests that it protects the free exercise of religion in this state. And who could object to that? After all, America was founded on the principle of religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
This so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” is not as sweet as it sounds.
Why is it not worth supporting?
RFRA is Unnecessary and Unjust
RFRA is unnecessary because it is redundant on both the federal level and state level. Our right to religious freedom is already protected in the U.S. Bill of Rights… Additionally, the New York State Constitution also clearly guarantees free religious exercise…
RFRA essentially establishes special rights for religious believers that are not available to other Americans. In this way, it is discriminatory and unfair. Government is not supposed to interfere with religious practices or give preference to any specific religion over other religions. Government shall not favor religion over “no religion.” RFRA legally endorses discrimination against those who do not endorse organized religion.
The Secular Coalition for America opposes it as well.
But, as always, politics makes strange bedfellows.
A Christian lobbying group, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, does not support the bill either.
For different reasons, though…
New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms does not like Silver’s bill because the added protections would have potential implications for gay marriage and abortions, which the organization opposes, said the Rev. Duane Motley of Spencerport, founder of the group.
In Albany, “discrimination means sexual orientation,” and the health care access provision “is Albany lingo for abortion rights,” Motley said.
The law could further impede religious practice, Motley said. A Christian minister who preaches against homosexuality could become a target, he said.
How could New York’s version of RFRA affect the law? Consider these cases, all of which could be overturned if the bill was passed:
A church in New Mexico claimed that a licensing requirement for a child care center (i.e., rule prohibiting spanking) violated their free exercise rights. [The claim was denied.]
A married male paramedic sued alleging that his employer’s requiring him to stay overnight with a female paramedic at a station while on duty conflicted with his religious beliefs. The court rejected his free exercise claim…
The state medical examiner in Michigan ordered an autopsy performed on the plaintiff’s son after he was killed in an automobile accident. The plaintiff, who was Jewish, alleged that performance of the autopsy violated her free exercise rights. The court denied her claim…
Already, RFRA is being used to defend potentially unlawful and certainly disturbing cases.
Like this one, where a woman is using RFRA to defend her “cultural practice” of importing “pieces of baboon, green monkey and warthog” from overseas so she can eat them.
If you’re living in New York, encourage your state representatives to vote against the bill if they’re not doing so already.
Here’s a sample letter of opposition and the information about whom to contact about it.