Changes Under Consideration for Texas Religious Freedom Act
It seems like everyone in the U.S. is focusing on Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed into law last week. Arkansas is next on the chopping block, as the governor reviews a similar law that was passed Tuesday by their Legislature. The major concern with both Acts is that, based on the vague wording, it would allow businesses to discriminate individuals and claim religious reasons in a court of law. In Indiana the court would have to side with the business in those situations, now that the law has been signed and bonded with a July 1st start date.
Indiana Governor Mike Pence has stated that the law is not meant to discriminate but provide protection to those refusing service on the grounds of religion. Gays and lesbians argue that the Act targets them as well as minority groups. Many public figures, such as Apple CEO Tim Cook, Hillary Clinton, George Takai, national conventions such as GenCon, and the NCAA have all spoken out against the Act.
Since the weekend of turmoil, Pence has taken a step back from his original hard-line stance. He has acknowledged that some of the wording in the law is not as clear as it could be. Though Pence hasn’t bailed out of the law yet and feels it has validity. He has asked the Legislature to revisit the law, and wants to see the changes as soon as this week. “Was I expecting this kind of backlash? Heavens no,” Pence commented during an appearance on CNN.
But Indiana is not the only state with a version of the Religious Freedom Act. In fact, 19 states have some variation of Indiana’s law on the books, including Texas. To notes, most of these laws are not to the extreme that Indiana and Arkansas have proposed. But the Texas Legislature will be reviewing their Religious Freedom Restoration Act this session and potentially amending it to be just as vague and confusing as the Indiana law. It opens up the Act for potential for discrimination based on religious grounds, and it would be legal if the changes are approved.
The original law was enacted in 1999. It was drafted by Republicans from Waco, Plano, and Dallas, and the House Sponsor was a Democrat from Houston. The goal of the Act was to protect practitioners of different religions from government intrusion. There is nothing listed in the original law that indicates bias towards a minority or other groups. It’s a pretty sensible law as it allows people in the state to practice their religion of choice without government interference.
Here is where things become sticky.
A number of Republicans are looking to drop the word ‘substantially’ from several clauses in the Act. For example: “a government agency may not substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion.”
Changing one part of the sentence shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is. Most courts rule that a “substantial burden” is an event or action where it requires a person to do something that is forbidden by their faith. Being a ‘burden’ doesn’t clarify what actions fall into that word. It’s a burden to drive in downtown Dallas at 5pm every day, just like some people may find it a burden to clean up after their pets when taking them on walks.
Dropping the word ‘substantially’ causes the clause to change from “intent to harm” to “a mild inconvenience.” It opens up the potential to discriminate people and claim religious principles as a reason.
While the law focuses on government involvement, it could easily be applied to daily life for businesses if the propose changes are enacted. Right now the argument is split along party lines. Democrats see that it’s infringing on personal freedoms while Republicans claim that the word harms religious freedoms. As the controversy continues in Indiana, another storm is brewing in the Texas Legislature.