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Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Definition

A Religious Freedom Restoration bill ensures that religious freedoms are protected from infringement by the government. Opponents argue that these bills create grounds for discrimination.

Summary

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993 was a federal act passed by the U.S. House and Senate and signed into law by President Clinton. This law protects individuals from laws and actions taken by the government that infringe on their freedom to practice their religion, unless the infringements are necessary to further a compelling government interest. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled RFRA unconstitutional as it applied to states, but it continues to be applied to the federal government.

To date, 21 states have enacted their own version of RFRA to protect religious freedom under state law. Most are similar to the federal law but not identical. As states continue to introduce RFRA legislation and amendments, there has been a great deal of controversy. Most backlash has come from the LGBT and ally communities who argue that such legislation may provide legal protection to those that would discriminate against others.

Why are chambers weighing in on this issue? A state enacting a law such as RFRA, that appears harmful, can have a negative impact on the economy and business environment. New businesses will be discouraged from moving to or expanding in that state. Employers currently based there might also have trouble attracting their desired talent to the area because of the discriminatory laws.

Indiana

The legislation recently passed in Indiana, for example, allows individuals and businesses to assert their right to “the free exercise of religion.” While the federal and most state RFRAs protect individuals from religious infringements by the government, language in the Indiana law expanded the definition of an individual to include businesses and did not require that the dispute include the government, but can be between two private parties. Opponents thus argue that these new laws would permit legal discrimination against the LGBT community on the basis of religious conviction, because several states in which these bills have been introduced do not protect sexual orientation under their civil rights acts. Statewide, Indiana does not protect sexual orientation or gender identity, although some localities such as Indianapolis do.

Regardless of intent, the impacts of passing such legislation can be great. Indiana’s RFRA has had rippling economic consequences, the full effects of which remain to be seen. Several large corporations and even other state and city governments announced bans on paid travel or execution of contracts in Indiana pending repeal or amendment of the law. One week after original passing of the law, language was added to clarify that the new measure does not allow for discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in localities where those groups are protected, but some opponents think this "fix" does not go far enough.

Other States

Other states considering similar legislation face a dilemma – wanting to protect religious liberty but not at the expense of their brand. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is quoted as saying, “The business community is in a war for talent. We’re desperately trying to find the best and the brightest to come and work in Michigan. And we want all talented people to feel welcome and encouraged to make Michigan their home.”

Similarly, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson expressed a desire to “make it clear that Arkansas wants to be a place of tolerance” as he considered signing a similar measure that came across his desk for signature. The Arkansas bill contained language similar to Indiana's RFRA, but the Governor refused to sign the legislation until it was amended to mirror the federal law.

After several religious liberty measures have been killed in Georgia, one version (HB 757) successfully passed in March, 2016. Differently from the Indiana bill, HB 757 specifically calls out faith-based organizations for protection. The bill shields faith-based organizations from having to rent or allow its facility to be used for an event it finds "objectionable" based on sincerely-held religious beliefs. The Metro Atlanta Chamber has been a vocal opponent to this and similar measures and has urged the Governor to stick by his earlier criticisms of the bill and reject it (see below also). The chamber and Georgia's powerful corporations (Microsoft, Google, Coca-Cola) warn that passage of the law could have a "crippling economic impact" - to the tune of $1-2 billion. Governor Nathan Deal vetoed the legislation on March 28.

Resources

  • National Conference of State Legislatures - NCSL has cataloged the bills and measures proposed and passed in each state regarding restoration of religious freedom. As stated above, there are currently 21 states with RFRAs and 10 states that (as of June 2015) are considering an RFRA or similar legislation.
  • Out & Equal - This group, which provides workplace advocacy, worked with 50 CEOs in their Executive Forum to put together a tool they could share with their companies to demonstrate their commitment to diversity and inclusion. They developed an open letter and talking points for companies and individuals to use for their communications and conversations about the potential discriminatory effects of religious exemption laws.
  • Freedom Indiana is a campaign designed to explain the potential harm RFRA laws can cause and to inspire grassroots advocacy to prevent passage.
  • This article explains some of the differences between the federal RFRA law and those that have been proposed in states. Specifically, broader reaching clauses in the Indiana and Arkansas measures that have been the basis for much of the contention.

Chamber Examples

  • Charlotte Chamber RFRA Opposition - After the fallout from the Indiana RFRA passage, the Charlotte Chamber's Executive Committee voted to oppose a similar measure in North Carolina.
  • The Detroit Regional Chamber focused mainly on getting Michigan's civil rights act amended to include sexual orientation and gender identity rather than defeating RFRA. Their work was part of the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition
  • Indy Chamber Opposes RFRA
  • Georgia's State Chamber and the Metro Atlanta Chamber (MAC) also came out in opposition of such legislation, even before the 2015 session. A RFRA bill died in April after vocal opposition from the business community. MAC provided the following statement to Bloomberg:
    • "The Georgia Chamber and the Metro Atlanta Chamber (MAC) believe that government has a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating discrimination. Our organizations oppose any discriminatory business practices against any group or person. “As the debate continues over the issue of religious freedom legislation, the Georgia Chamber and MAC continue to stress the importance of including language that would protect against discrimination or the perception of discrimination that could negatively impact the state's reputation as a center for worldwide commerce. “The state of Georgia and the Atlanta region are recognized globally as forward-thinking, inclusive and dedicated to progress. The Georgia Chamber and MAC work continuously to protect our reputation as a leading state for business by ensuring our business climate supports our ability to create, attract, recruit and expand jobs as well as a diverse and dynamic workforce."

Articles & Blog Posts



Has your chamber worked on behalf of or against the RFRA? Please submit related resources to HERO@acce.org!


Chamberpedia Home | Government Relations and Public Policy | Religious Freedom Rights Act (RFRA)

Last Updated: 11/29/2015

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