Author archives: Ben Householder

State Round-Up: Restoring the Balance of Religious Freedom

by Nicolas Reynolds , Ben Householder

December 13, 2021

Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about key provisions that states have advanced in 2021 to defend the family and human dignity.

The free exercise of religion is fundamental to American law, having been enshrined within the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution since 1791. As our society becomes more hostile to religion and fewer Americans identify with an organized religion, it is becoming more common for today’s courts to question the “first” freedom’s preeminent place in society. State legislators can take proactive steps to reverse and prevent further erosion of religious liberty, in part by enacting legislation that affirms this fundamental right. FRC actively supports efforts to pass Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs), which provide state courts with the same legal balancing test that federal courts use to protect free exercise of religion.

When a state legislature passes a law restricting a constitutionally protected right, the courts will deem that law unconstitutional unless it passes the “strict scrutiny” test, which requires the state to demonstrate that the law promotes a “compelling governmental interest” and is narrowly tailored to advance that interest in the “least restrictive means” possible. However, in the 1990 case Employment Division v. Smith, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws restricting religious liberty need only pass the “rational basis” test—demonstrating a “legitimate interest” and a neutral application of restrictions. By applying the lowest of the three levels of legal scrutiny, rather than the highest, the U.S. Supreme Court denied religious liberty the legal status a constitutionally protected right deserves.

Congress responded to this injustice by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which required courts to use the strict scrutiny standard in religious liberty cases. The strongly bipartisan measure passed unanimously in the House, was supported by all but three senators, and was signed by President Clinton. However, in the 1997 case City of Boerne v. Flores, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress had no power to apply this standard to state and local legislation. This Court decision made it vital for each state to pass its own RFRA.

Between 1997 and 2015, 21 states passed RFRA legislation: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. In 2015, serious resistance emerged for the first time due to fears that RFRAs would allow discrimination against individuals who identify as LGBT. Since then, 61 state RFRAs have been proposed across the nation, each requiring strict scrutiny to be applied to all laws and regulations that burden a person’s free exercise of religion. (It’s important to note that some states’ high courts apply a similar “strict scrutiny” standard due to state court precedent; depending on the politics in such a state, it may or may not be advisable to statutorily strengthen that court precedent.)

2021 has been a revolutionary year for RFRAs. Not a single RFRA was passed between 2016 and 2020, but this year has given the movement new life. Three states—Montana (S.B. 215), North Dakota (H.B. 1410), and South Dakota (S.B.124)—have already successfully enacted RFRAs. In New Hampshire, H.B.542 awaits the signature of Republican Governor Chris Sununu. Once New Hampshire’s bill is signed, the United States will be more than halfway to attaining nationwide RFRA coverage.

The Religion … of every man,” according to James Madison (the primary author of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights), “must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it.” States should follow the federal government’s lead and ensure that religious liberty retains the legal status and protections that the Founders originally ascribed to it. Twenty-four states have already done their part—the remaining 26 must quickly follow in their footsteps.

State Round-Up: Protecting Florists, Bakers, and T-shirt Makers From State Discrimination

by Nicolas Reynolds , Ben Householder

November 16, 2021

Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about key provisions that states have advanced in 2021 to defend the family and human dignity.

Religious freedom is foundational to America’s national identity, having been enshrined within the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But in many states, people of faith and people of no faith affiliation are increasingly being attacked for living in accordance with their sincerely-held beliefs about natural marriage and biological sex.

Hands On Originals, a Louisville T-shirt maker that both serves and employs individuals who identify as homosexual, was sued for refusing to print shirts in support of a 2012 gay pride festival. Barronelle Stutzman, a flower-arranger from Richland, Washington, was forced to pay thousands of dollars in fines by the state for declining to arrange flowers for the same-sex wedding of a long-time customer. In the same year, Jack Phillips, a baker from Lakewood, Colorado, was sued for declining to design a cake for a same-sex wedding. The same thing happened to Melissa Klein of Gresham, Oregon in 2013. Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran was fired in 2015 for writing a devotional book that mentioned the biblical teaching that sex should be reserved for marriage between a man and a woman. Hundreds more examples of governmental discrimination against people of faith could be given, and new ones seem to occur every week.

Thankfully, state legislators are taking preventative action by introducing Government Nondiscrimination Acts (GNDAs), which seek to ensure that Americans will never be discriminated against by their government for affirming natural marriage and biological sex. These bills prohibit the government from taking any adverse action against individuals for their religious beliefs regarding marriage and sexuality. GNDAs have been introduced in 18 states since 2015. Almost half of the 41 bills were introduced in 2016. A cause of action has been added to most versions, giving them much stronger enforcement mechanisms.

Contrary to the often-hysterical accusations of GNDA opponents, these bills do not limit or regulate same-sex marriage and never exempt any individual or entity from providing services that are necessary to protect the life, health, or safety of another person. GNDAs do not allow businesses to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity; rather, they protect people from government discrimination if they refuse to violate their sincerely-held religious beliefs or moral convictions.

No person should be subjected to government discrimination for following their religious beliefs or moral convictions regarding natural marriage or biological sex. Whether one bakes cakes, designs T-shirts, arranges flowers, or officiates weddings, Americans should be able to live and work in a manner consistent with their sincerely-held convictions. With state and even local officials increasingly suing individuals, even in “conservative” states, Government Nondiscrimination Acts are desperately needed if America is to live up to its reputation as a haven of liberty.

IRF 101: Slow Progress Towards Religious Freedom in Uzbekistan

by Tyler Watt , Ben Householder

June 23, 2021

This blog is part of an International Religious Freedom 101 series providing an overview of religious freedom challenges in countries around the world. Read our previous installments on Turkey, PakistanSri Lanka, and Vietnam.

Aimurat Khayburahmanov, a Christian Uzbekistani, was arrested in 2008 for holding prayer meetings in his home, in violation of Uzbekistan’s oppressive laws forbidding religious gatherings held outside of registered churches and worship sites. He was charged with participation in an “extremist” religious group, and faced up to 15 years imprisonment.

Khayburahmanov was jailed for three months, and later questioned by the authorities. They pressured him to sign a statement saying that he would neither meet with other Christians nor possess Christian literature. This gross violation of Khayburahmanov’s rights is just one example of the persecution that has long been carried out in Uzbekistan.

The former Soviet state of Uzbekistan exists in a region of the globe that elicits much political attention, and yet, Uzbekistan itself is far from the minds of most Americans. The nation’s powerful executive branch ensures that public policy reflects the personal interests of the president, with disastrous consequences to religious liberty. Though Uzbekistan has moved towards reform in recent years, the religious liberty of its citizens is still dangerously restricted.

Religious Groups Under Pressure

An estimated 2 percent of Uzbekistanis are Christians, including Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. As such a small minority, they are extremely vulnerable to pressure from the government. Members of non-Muslim religious minorities face intense social pressure to refrain from evangelism, thus preventing them from expanding their faith communities.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are particularly targeted, as their religious beliefs prohibit them from fulfilling Uzbekistan’s compulsory military service requirement. Several have been arrested and sentenced to prison because of their beliefs in recent decades, although authorities seem to be relaxing their policy for conscientious objectors. Nonetheless, Jehovah’s Witnesses are only allowed to gather in one congregation, in one city. All other assemblies are considered unlawful.

Road to Religious Recognition

Nascent religious groups face an upward fight in pushing for recognition by the government. Though the government and the state are officially secular, and all faiths are equal under the law, individuals are prohibited from gathering for religious reasons if their faith community is not registered. This affects thousands of Uzbekistanis. Shia Muslims, which make up 1 percent of Uzbekistan’s population, are not officially recognized and have no sanctioned mosque to meet in. The same is true for several protestant denominations and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who struggle to find an accessible place to practice their faith.

Christ reminds us in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.” This verse holds equally true today, reminding us that Christians thrive in a faith community where they can worship and pray together. The importance of corporate worship is not lost on Muslims and Jews, who strongly desire to express their faiths in in mosques and synagogues, and who also fall victim to Uzbekistan’s restrictive policies.

Restrictions on Muslims

Although Uzbekistanis are predominantly Muslim, with more than three-quarters of the country’s population following Islam, the secular government has nonetheless adopted and enforced policies that are negatively impactful to devout Muslims. Women are forbidden from wearing the hijab publicly, and Muslim men are not allowed to grow their beards long as is their religious custom. Though these laws are not frequently enforced, their presence “on the books” is a source of concern.

One imam who petitioned the new regime to overturn this longstanding rule was fired from his job in 2018, as a direct result of his opposition to the status quo. Eight Muslim bloggers who criticized Uzbekistan’s oppressive policies and called for a less secularized society were imprisoned for their views that same year.

Improving Imperfection?

Uzbekistan has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” or as a country on the “Special Watch List” by the U.S. State Department since 2006, but recent developments have moved the country in a positive direction. Following the death of longtime autocrat President Slam Karimov in 2016, the new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has taken steps toward liberalizing the nation’s oppressive policies. A government blacklist that included 17,000 names of “religious extremists” was reduced to about 1,000 names. Though the government raided more than 350 unregistered places of worship in 2017-18, no raids were reported in 2019, indicating a shift away from strict enforcement of the more extreme policies.

In December 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Uzbekistan would be removed from the Special Watch List of countries that threaten religious liberties. However, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that Uzbekistan be added back onto the list.

Though the U.S. State Department lauded the “real progress” made by Uzbekistan in addressing their religious freedom violations, there is much work to be done before the situation there is resolved, and freedom is guaranteed to all believers.

Tyler Watt is an intern with the Center for Religious Liberty in FRC’s Policy & Government Affairs Department. Ben Householder is an intern in State and Local Affairs with FRC’s Policy & Government Affairs Department.

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