LGBT

Advocates Fighting Over State "Religious Freedom" Bills Are Keeping A Close Eye On The Supreme Court

How the U.S. Supreme Court rules in the Hobby Lobby religious freedom case will likely impact the next stage of the debate over state-level religious protection laws like the one recently vetoed in Arizona.

Opponents of Arizona’s religious freedom bill protest outside the state capitol Feb. 21, 2014. AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, Cheryl Evans

Advocates from LGBT, civil liberties, and religious groups battling for and against “religious freedom” bills in several states this year say they are keeping a close eye on the Hobby Lobby case before the U.S. Supreme Court, saying its implications for religious liberty laws could influence the next leg of the debate over state legislation.

“A Supreme Court decision could influence how state courts interpret the scope of existing [state Religious Freedom Restoration Act] laws,” said Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “In addition, this case may influence the types of legislation we see in 2015 and beyond, as advocates on all sides parse the opinions of the justices.”

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Tuesday for the Hobby Lobby case, in which the company’s owners argue that following provisions for covering contraception costs in the health insurance mandate of the Affordable Care Act violates the exercise of their religious beliefs and conflict with protections established in the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

The complex case has set off debates over the health care law, religious liberties, and women’s reproductive rights. Depending on how the court rules, the case could potentially affect the debate over religious freedom legislation introduced in several states this year, according to the ACLU and the Human Rights Campaign.

The Kansas Family Policy Council, a Wichita, Kan.-based Christian group, said it too is monitoring the case, especially considering the debate over religious freedom legislation that stalled in the state last month. “There are many groups, including us, watching the case very closely,” said Robert Noland, executive director of the organization.

The group helped the bill, HB 2453, sail to passage in the state’s House, but Senate leadership blocked the bill from advancing in the chamber over concerns it would lead to discrimination.

The ACLU and HRC — among many other local and national groups — have railed against legislation proposed in many states, including Kansas and Arizona, where a bill that would add protections for people and businesses who wish to deny services to others if doing so violated their religious beliefs was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer after facing an avalanche of opposition from citizens, religious groups, and businesses. Opponents have been successful in preventing similar bills from becoming law so far this year in several states like Georgia, South Dakota, Idaho, Maine, and several others.

Many of the bills introduced this year seek to expand on or establish laws modeled off the federal RFRA, partly in response to the sweeping marriage equality movement throughout the country, but often specifically in response to instances in which businesses owners were sued for refusing goods or services to same-sex couples. Eighteen states already have religious freedom restoration acts modeled along the lines of the federal version, but critics of the bills proposed in recent months said they are broader and would lead to discrimination justified by religious beliefs — and that more could be on the way.

“Both the Hobby Lobby case and the bills we’ve seen in the states are an attempt by private individuals and corporations to insert their beliefs in the private lives of Americans and go well beyond where they’ve traditionally been permitted and utilize their religious and moral beliefs to justify their actions against others,” said Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director at HRC. “When the next [legislative] sessions roll around, we might see revised versions of these bills.”

As to how a Supreme Court may rule in the cases, advocates like Rho wouldn’t hazard a guess prior to a Supreme Court ruling, and subsequently couldn’t say exactly how it would alter the debate over state legislation.

“I definitely think that the legal interpretation of this case will influence how the state supreme courts consider these laws and then how it affects state legislatures in terms of considering these laws,” she said. “All sides are going to watch the the Supreme Court incredibly closely.”

The Kansas Family Policy Council’s Noland agreed, saying, “I do think the case is a bellwether for the Supreme Court as to on what side of religious liberty they are going to fall. It all depends on how the ruling is written.” He, too, declined to speculate on specifics of potential outcomes.

Rho, though, predicts proponents of the bills will likely regroup and return in the fall and 2015 sessions with refined versions of the bills, saying, “I don’t have any doubt they’re going to back to the drawing board and figuring out next steps.”

A decision in the Hobby Lobby case is expected before the end of June.

In the meantime, the battle over these bills has quieted for now, but isn’t over. The ACLU, HRC, and the Campaign for Southern Equality are monitoring a bill under consideration in the Mississippi General Assembly which lawmakers punted to a study committee. Additionally, Rho said advocates are watching states where legislators haven’t started session, such as North Carolina, which convenes in mid-May.

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