Montana Governor Greg Gianforte signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law last week, a measure that will help Christians and other residents of faith protect themselves from religious discrimination. People of faith may cite RFRA in a claim or as a defense.
RFRA laws codify the “compelling governmental interest” level of strict scrutiny under judicial review for laws that infringe on constitutional rights. When laws do infringe on these rights but pass the compelling governmental interest test, the government must enforce them in the least restrictive way.
Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer introduced the federal RFRA in 1993. Former President Bill Clinton signed it into law. One of the most high-profile cases that cited RFRA was In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby in 2014. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the contraceptive mandate in Obamacare violated RFRA. Specifically, the court contended that closely held corporations cannot be required to provide contraception coverage.
Montana joins other states that have enacted versions of RFRA laws or RFRA-like provisions imposed by courts. The Billings Gazette reported on the new law:
“The governor signed SB215 into law to protect the freedom of people of all faiths to exercise their sincerely held religious beliefs,” a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office said Thursday. “Montana joins 21 other states with RFRA laws, where it has historically been used to allow Native American children to wear braids in school, Sikhs to wear turbans in the military, and Christian employers to refuse to cover abortions under their health insurance policies.”
Democrats and other opponents have decried the new law, arguing it would empower people to freely discriminate against LGBTQ people with beliefs that they are immune in the courts. Democratic lawmakers in both chambers who are LGBTQ shared soul-baring testimony in floor sessions about the message the bill’s passage would send to communities that already suffer discrimination. The legislation spurred opponents to rally outside the Capitol, while more than 250 companies co-signed a letter opposing SB 215.
Leftists claim that religious freedom protection laws provide cover for people of faith to discriminate against homosexuals.
Republicans have rebutted that the act does not grant legal protections for discrimination, saying such attempts to use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as cover for discrimination against LGBTQ people have failed in more instances than not. Great Falls Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, an attorney, said his read on the bill found it does not apply to individuals’ actions, only government interferences.
“Citizens should not be left defenseless when their government attempts to burden their ability to live and worship according to their faith,” Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Matt Sharp said. “This law provides a sensible balancing test for courts to use when reviewing government policies that infringe upon the religious freedom rights of Montanans. The law doesn’t automatically decide who will win every disagreement, but it does ensure that every Montanan—regardless of belief system or political power—receives a fair hearing when government action forces a person to violate his or her religious beliefs.”