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State RFRAs: Disrupting the Balance

If you or your congregation are already involved in efforts to oppose or to amend state-level RFRA legislation, or would like to learn about how to engage on this issue, please let us know.  We are eager to offer guidance and support to you and your congregation on this important issue. Please feel free or have a member of your congregation involved in this issue contact Noah Fitzgerel at nfitzgerel@rac.org or 202-387-2800.

Issues of religious freedom have been in the forefront of the national conversation in recent months. Last year, the RAC coordinated with rabbis and congregations in states were RFRA legislation was moving. Learn more about our 2015 efforts. Especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions regarding marriage equality and the Affordable Care Act’s contraception rule, some have argued that their own religious beliefs are threatened. As members of a religious denomination that believes strongly in religious freedom and in the protection of civil rights, Reform Jews have an important voice in this debate.

Much of the current debate is focused around the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). In the early 1990s, following a misguided Supreme Court decision in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (1990), RFRA was passed by Congress to create a balancing test around an individual’s religious freedom and the government’s compelling interest in achieving a particular goal. The aim was to ensure that the government would only infringe on an individual’s religious freedom to the smallest extent necessary to achieve a specific good, such as ensuring public safety.

The Reform Movement proudly played a key role in the bipartisan, multi-faith coalition that worked to pass the federal RFRA. Without RFRA’s protections, many core religious observances would be in peril: Catholic priests who offered ritual communion wine to adolescents could have arguably faced criminal charges for providing a minor with alcohol, and individuals wearing religious garb – such as a kippa or other head covering – could be required to remove it to comply with government workplace regulations.

The federal RFRA has been an effective tool for more than two decades. Now, some states are seeking to pass their own so-called religious freedom restoration acts. Yet, in so doing, they are not following the carefully crafted balance struck by the federal RFRA. The effect is to mistakenly pit religious freedom and civil rights against one another. Many of these state RFRAs go far beyond the scope of the federal RFRA to essentially create affirmative rights to discriminate.

To check if a RFRA bill has been introduced in your state, you can use this legislation tracker from our partners at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Here are the states that currently have RFRA laws.