This year a number of state bills are being introduced that involve religious liberty. Here are a few highlights with more to come in following weeks.
On February 19, by a margin of 67 to 28, the Alabama House of Representatives passed the Religious Liberty Act, HB 108, sponsored by Lynn Greer (R – Lauderdale County) which would “protect the freedom of conscience rights” of small Alabama employers who do not want to pay for federally mandated contraception coverage if it violates the religious conscience of the employer.
If held to be constitutional, HB 108 would allow employers to opt out of some provisions of Obamacare. The bill includes language that prevents employers from obtaining the protected health information of employees or to violate HIPAA.
There is some question as to what “religiously motivated” means, and others felt that religion should not have been part of the legislation. Another concern was what would happen if an employee required contraceptive medications for reasons other than birth control such as endometriosis.
This week, Sen. Ricardo Lara (D- Long Beach) introduced SB 323 which would threaten to revoke tax exempt status for a wide range of “youth groups” unless they agree to abandon any criteria related to gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and other categories. The bill is intended to pressure the Boy Scouts to accept homosexual leaders but, according to the Pacific Justice Institute which is actively involved in tracking the bill (http://www.pacificjustice.org/1/post/2013/02/-new-bill-pushes-scouts-little-league-religious-groups-to-accept-lgbt-gender-identity.html ) it could affect many different types of organizations ranging from the Boy Scouts to Special Olympics, Little League, youth sports organizations and “youth groups.”
The tax exemptions primarily involve state sales and use taxes. Because it would represent a tax increase on non-profits, it would require a 2/3 approval in both the Senate and the Assembly.
The current version and progress of the bill can be tracked at LegiScan (http://legiscan.com/CA/text/SB323 ) . Pacific Justice Institute will be organizing opposition to the bill and indicates that it plans to legally oppose this legislation if it passes. As presently written, the bill cold affect religious organizations.
Michigan legislators have introduced Senate Bill 0136 that would allow health care payers, health facilities, and health providers to decline to provide or pay for certain objectionable health care services. The bill can be tracked athttp://www.legislature.mi.gov/(S(zj1izoe2betg4syvr3prwf45))/mileg.aspx?page=BillStatus&objectname=2013-SB-0136
The Mississippi House and Senate have passed dual versions of a bill that would affirm the religious freedom of students in public schools.
The “Schoolchildren’s Religious Liberties Act”, introduced by Mark Formby (R-Picayune) is designed to prevent students from being “punished” for expressing personal religious viewpoints to classmates or from being told that they cannot invite classmates to after-school Bible clubs. The purpose of the bill is to clarify and affirm the constitutional free speech rights that presently exist and have been protected by federal courts.
The bill is an attempt to circumvent the effects of a previous Mississippi court ruling that struck down a previous Mississippi law allowing student-led prayer by allowing schools to declare that events such as graduations and football games are “limited public forums” and students would be allowed free speech on such occasions, including prayer or other religious speech.
The ACLU has expressed concerns that this could lead to student-led prayers, and could force children in captive audiences to listen to the religious expression of others. Advocates for the bill say that since the school would not dictate the message and would be required to publish a disclaimer that it was not sponsoring the prayer, it would pass constitutional muster.
The bill is presently in a joint committee to resolve some minor differences between the House and Senate versions before it is submitted to the governor for signature.
Missouri State Representative Rick Brattin (R – 55th District), has introduced House Bill 291 which defines biological evolution as a “philosophy” that “denies the operation of any intelligence, supernatural event, God or theistic figure in the initial or subsequent development of life.” It further states, “The origin of life on earth is inferred to be the result of intelligence directed design and construction. There are no plausible mechanisms or present-day experiments to prove the naturalistic origin of the first independent living organism.”
The bill would mandate that evolution and intelligent design receive “equal treatment” in the classroom.
Representative Brattin’s heart may be in the right place, but his proposed solution may run contrary to principles of separation of church and state. His positions may need to be more nuanced, as his website indicates (at least as of this morning) that Brattin wants to “repeal health care for people.” (http://rickbrattin.org/)
HB 291 is available online athttp://www.house.mo.gov/billtracking/bills131/biltxt/intro/HB0291I.htm
The Virginia House and Senate have passed SB 1074, Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), which would protect the right of religious and political student gropus at public universities to choose members and leadership based on their beliefs and principles. The bill would allow such groups to determine that only people committed to the organization’s mission may conduct certain activities, and further prohibits public institutions of higher education from discriminating against student groups that make such a determination.
The bill is designed to reverse the enactment of “all-comers” policies which have prohibited student organizations from establishing viewpoint criteria for their membership and leaders. The result of these policies has been that groups could be required to have members or leaders who do not share the beliefs of or believe in the mission of the group.
This bill will support the foundational constitutional principle of free association. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that “all-comers” policies are constitutional, although universities are not required to have them. This bill will ensure that Virginia public universities, none of which have “all-comers” policies, will not introduce them.
SB 1074 can be tracked at http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?ses=131&typ=bil&val=sb1074