Wisconsin’s Religious Right lobby has introduced a dangerous bill, Assembly Joint Resolution 43 and Senate Joint Resolution 38, to amend the state Constitution and tamper with the ringing language of Article 1, Section 18.
FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott testified (below) Aug. 20 against the amendment before the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor:
Joint Resolution 38 poses substantial problems for the state of Wisconsin.
This change has no regard for how well our religious protections have functioned. The substance of Article 1, Section 18 has been unchanged for 165 years, since Wisconsin’s 1848 Constitution. It explicitly protects from interference with rights of conscience. To amend Section 18 permanently, particularly when the amendment is unquestionably vague, is an insult to the founding document of our state.
Supporters of this constitutional amendment claim that it only is restating current judicial opinions. This is not true. The wording in the amendment is expansive. It turns a shield into a sword. A protection is now something that can be wielded against others. The amendment includes any purported burden on conscience, not just substantial burdens. A person may allege any trivial burden and could violate the law as long as religion was used as a justification. It also covers indirect burdens, which reaches a wide gamut of lawful state actions. Each person would be a law unto themselves.
The consequences in changing Section 18 will be far reaching. The wording is so broad that any state enforcement, state statutes, and local ordinances would be impacted. Protections from discrimination in places of public accommodation, housing, and employment could be gutted. The expanse of the provision would reach schools, correctional institutions, and law enforcement, including prosecution for possession of illegal drugs.
All areas of public policy would be impacted, including a person’s right to obtain medications. A pharmacist could claim he has no duty to refer to an alternative provider if the pharmacist objects to filling a doctor’s prescription. A student not wanting to take a biology exam would be exempted because of her creationist beliefs.
This amendment is a solution to a problem that does not exist. It changes our original 1848 establishment clause and free exercise protections. The amendment must be rejected.