New state law sparks controversy across the nation


Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed SB 101, known as the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), into law on Thursday, March 26.  Modeled on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Indiana legislation prevents a government body from substantially burdening the free exercise of religion unless the state can prove that doing so furthered a compelling state interest, using the least restrictive means possible.

In 1993, Congress passed the federal RFRA, which prohibited the federal and state governments from placing excessive burdens on the free exercise of religion.  This legislation was adopted and signed by President Clinton, but,  in City of Boerne v. Flores, the Supreme Court struck down the provision that directly applied the law to the states.  As a result, 21 states have passed their own versions of the federal RFRA in order to protect the free exercise of religion within their borders.

Rick Garnett, Professor of Law, discussed the purpose of these state laws with the Rover.  “In my view, RFRA-type laws are good policy and make sense.  They are consistent with our civil-rights commitments and with our tradition of respecting religious liberty, especially for vulnerable minorities,” he said.

“They are ‘necessary’ in order to make sure that religious exercise is not unnecessarily burdened by laws, rules, and regulations,” Garnett continued.  “In my view, preventing such unnecessary burdens is the ‘real purpose’ of such laws.”

Patrick Mangan, Executive Director of Citizens for Community Values of Indiana and Ambassador of Alliance Defending Freedom, agreed.  “The purpose of the law is to protect people of faith from the burden of laws which, whether intended to or not, place unjust burdens on the free exercise of religion,” he told the Rover.

Mangan emphasized that the RFRA laws are an important mechanism to check the courts and protect the religious freedom of the people.

“[T]his is a reminder that the Founders were entirely dedicated to the notion that the Government should not interfere with the free exercise of Faith.  And now the activist courts must be checked by the legislature from stripping away religious liberty.  That is what our system of checks and balances is all about,” Mangan said.

While this type of legislation is not uncommon across the nation, the Indiana law has received national media attention, as opponents of the law argue that it will allow discrimination against same-sex couples.  Further, opponents claim that the Indiana RFRA provides protection for business owners to refuse service to homosexuals by claiming the right to conscience protected by the law.

Though some supporters do seek protection from providing service to same-sex weddings under this law, many argue that this belief that such protection is the sole purpose of the law is incorrect, based on the history of similar laws both federally and in other states.

“The claims that RFRA-type laws are a ‘license to discriminate’ and that RFRA-type laws are ‘really’ simply about opposition to same-sex marriage are, in my view, unfounded,” Garnett told the Rover.  “RFRA-type laws have been on the books for many years and almost no cases involve religiously motivated attempts to violate anti-discrimination laws.”

Garnett explained that the cases that give rise to these types of complaints are rare.  “They tend to involve claimants, often members of minority faiths, whose religious exercise is being needlessly and thoughtlessly burdened by inflexible regulations,” he added.  “There has been a lot of publicity directed at a few recent cases involving wedding-related services but, again, these cases are very far from the typical RFRA case.”

In a letter to the Indiana Senate Judiciary Committee, 16 law professors urged the committee to pass SB 101, arguing that the legislation was similar to other state RFRA laws and provided necessary protection for the free exercise of religion.

“General protection for religious liberty is important precisely because it is impossible to legislate in advance for all the ways in which government might burden the free exercise of religion,” the letter explains.

The letter rejectsthe claim that Indiana’s RFRA would allow business owners to discriminate, stating, “The most common charge opponents make against RFRA legislation is that it is a ‘license to discriminate.’  It is no such thing.”

Referring to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell—which applied the federal RFRA to protect business owners from violating their sincerely held beliefs in providing abortifacients to their employees—the signers of the letter clarify, “its language suggests that the Supreme Court, interpreting the federal RFRA, will be reluctant to uphold religious objections to anti-discrimination laws.

“We are confident that Indiana courts will likewise be inclined to resist such claims under the Indiana RFRA.  Protecting Americans from discrimination is generally a compelling interest, and few claims to exemption from anti-discrimination laws are likely to succeed,” the letter continued.

In the wake of public controversy surrounding the law, Pence signed an alteration to the state RFRA that would not allow providers to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity, among other factors.

While some claim that this provision does not adequately protect civil rights, others argue that the addition could negate the religious freedom protection of the law.

“It is unfortunate that the content, purpose, and effects of RFRA-type laws were so misunderstood—and, in some cases, misrepresented—during the recent public controversy,” Garnett concluded.

Hailey Vrdolyak is a junior political science and theology major who has had some form of ice cream every day since Lent ended.  To help her stop this addiction contact her at