The Freedom From Religion Foundation is pleased to report that Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has vetoed HB 953, an expansion to the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
HB 953 was enacted amid misplaced fervor against churches being forced to hold worship services remotely during the pandemic, even though all gatherings were being limited in a similar way. However, the language of the bill went much further. It would have required the state to regard churches at least as favorably as any secular service or business, in all circumstances.
The tremendously broad language could arguably apply to any law a church did not want to follow for religious reasons. If the law included any secular exemption — for instance, exempting first responders from speed limits during emergencies — all churches would need to be exempted as well. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment already ensures that churches cannot be targeted for disfavored treatment, and protects every American’s right to worship, or not, so long as they are not otherwise violating the law or endangering others.
By way of explanation, Edwards noted that the bill "purports to provide further protection for the free exercise of religion but could create a circumstance that puts churches and congregation in harm’s way in times of an emergency." This is true, but understates the danger of HB 953. State RFRAs are already unwarranted and dangerous laws that have been weaponized to allow churches to ignore anti-discrimination statutes, among other things.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is a federal law that creates religious exemptions to any law if someone alleges the law burdens their religious exercise unless the government can show that the law is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest, a test known as “strict scrutiny” that is notoriously difficult for the government. The federal RFRA was held unconstitutional as applied to the states, but states like Louisiana enacted their own state law versions, which churches and religious businesses use to seek exemptions from laws they don’t like.
“Louisiana’s RFRA should be repealed, not expanded,” comments FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “We thank Gov. Edwards for making the right call, and hope that Louisianans will heed his caution against the reckless expansion of church exemptions to general laws.”
Photo by Richard David Ramsey CC BY-SA 3.0