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Religious Freedom Restoration Act: The True Meaning

May 30th, 2016


A state version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Georgia is being seriously challenged statewide, as many believe it legalizes businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers.

In 1993, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was passed. The reasons put forth in support of this legislation included a growing fear among people that the provisions in the Constitution protecting citizens’ religious freedom were being ignored and slowly encroached upon by other laws. Through its passing, church leaders could continue to act in accordance with their faith, without fear of prosecution under federal anti-discrimination laws.  Essentially, this law was created in order to ensure that churches and their affiliates would not have to choose between the tenets of their faith and the law.

Since 1993, numerous states have enacted their own RFRA legislation, with varying degrees of success. Essentially, states believed that the federal RFRA did not go far enough to protect religious institutions from state laws prohibiting any entity from discriminating based on certain protected classes.  Some state laws have been upheld while others have been overturned by courts for unconstitutionally infringing upon citizens’ right to equal protection under the law.  The latest state to join the foray into RFRA is Georgia, where a previously agreeable version had an amendment “twist” that ruffled feathers of many pre-amendment supporters and caused others to say that it should never have been pushed forward anyway due to constitutional issues.

Not So ‘Peachy’ Anymore

Georgia’s legislature was set to be the next in a long line of states whose law books would include a state version of the federal RFRA. The text of the latest bill being proposed in the state legislature largely mirrors the language of the federal law. Some argue that because it is so similar, the law would be unnecessary, which calls into question the motives behind its introduction. Many opponents of the state RFRA, including corporations and business leaders throughout the state, argue that the law is merely an attempt to allow business owners to legally discriminate against the LGBT community. Proponents of the law counter by pointing out the fact that Georgia’s state anti-discrimination law does not protect that community, and so will not change the status quo.  This argument does not take into account, however, the myriad municipal and local laws in cities like Atlanta that already provide protection for the LGBT community.  

While the bill’s drafters argue that their motive is pure – i.e. to address their constituents’ concerns over encroachment on religious liberties – it is interesting that the prior attempt was tabled by conservative legislators after one of their own added language “to explicitly block discrimination on any ground prohibited by federal, state, or local law.” Those who prevented the law from going to a vote argued that the language “gutted the bill.” It is difficult not to question the true motive behind this bill if protecting citizens from discrimination “guts” it.  

Watch and Wait

The Universal Life Church has been monitoring developments in this area as they play out in the state courts. As with the issue involving the right to same-sex marriage, this is another facet in an area of law that will likely require review by the Supreme Court of the United States.  Until the nation’s highest court rules on the issue, states will continue to move forward in varying directions as they forge their own path in a hotly contested area of law.

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