FFRF asks Conn. and Va. governors to repeal own state RFRAs

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is calling on the governors of Connecticut and Virginia to take the lead in repealing their states' versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. While thanking Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe for speaking out against Indiana's recently passed RFRA law, FFRF points out that their states likewise have objectionable RFRA laws on the books.

Malloy banned state-funded travel to Indiana, saying, "We cannot sit idly by and do nothing while laws are enacted that will turn back the clock." Connecticut's RFRA law is even broader than Indiana's law in that it bans any "burden" of a person's exercise of religion without a compelling governmental interest, instead of requiring the burden to be "substantial." FFRF sent him a letter yesterday.

McAuliffe invited Indiana businesses to come to Virginia, where, ironically, there is also a RFRA law in place. "The executive order you signed to protect state employees from discrimination is an excellent start. But it does not protect all citizens. The fact is, your state has had a law nearly identical to Indiana's in place for eight years," wrote FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker in their letter to McAuliffe.

"The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is now used not as a shield, but as a sword by the religious majority and corporations to discriminate against minority groups," charges FFRF, a state/church watchdog serving as the nation's largest association of atheists and agnostics.

FFRF's letters explain the background behind RFRA: The federal version of RFRA was enacted after two Native American religious practitioners who served as drug counselors were fired for using peyote in a religious ceremony and were denied unemployment benefits. The Supreme Court held the denial of benefits legitimate, because the law against drug use was a generally applicable law that did not target religious practice. In response, Congress rashly adopted the blanket RFRA law, sold as a law to protect religious minorities from laws that may lead inadvertently to discrimination.

However, in the wake of the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision allowing for-profit corporations to cite their corporate religious beliefs as a basis for breaking the law, RFRA has undergone a transformation, now being promoted and used by the religious majority and corporations.

FFRF submitted an amicus brief in the Hobby Lobby case written by Cardozo law professor and RFRA expert Marci Hamilton. It was the only brief to argue that RFRA is unconstitutional, granting the religious a special privilege unavailable to the non-religious to break laws they feel go against their beliefs. 

In the Supreme Court case Boerne v. Flores, argued by Hamilton, the court held that RFRA was unconstitutional as it applied to the states, which is why states have since passed their own versions. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in a concurrence that he believed RFRA violates the First Amendment because it shows a government preference for religion over irreligion.

In total, 20 states now have versions of RFRA on the books, with Arkansas set to become the 21st. FFRF is in the process of contacting governors of all of these states, urging them to repeal religious favoritism.

FFRF invites Malloy, McAuliffe and other state leaders to pave the way to repeal these damaging laws. Even if these laws were not originally intended to discriminate against gay people, trans people, women, and other disadvantaged groups, the religious majority has made it clear that it will now take advantage of the broad provisions in RFRA laws to do just that.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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