Decorative Scales of Justice in the CourtroomWritten by Don Byrd

A group of religion law scholars have injected a much-needed dose of reality into the religious freedom law debate heating up in Indiana (and around the country). Lawmakers there will soon consider a proposal modeled on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a law that prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person’s religious exercise unless such a burden is necessary because of a compelling state interest.

Opponents of the law argue that such a measure effectively allows discrimination and provides broad religious exemptions from government regulations. Supporters of the law say it is necessary to protect businesses from having to provide marriage-related services to same-sex couples.

As the Indianapolis Star reports, 16 law professors signed a letter last week arguing that the extremist rhetoric on both sides is likely not true:

In a letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Brent Steele, a group of 16 legal scholars … write that “it is not at all clear that the proposed Indiana RFRA would lead courts to recognize [an exemption from nondiscrimination laws].”

“Courts generally believe that anti-discrimination laws serve compelling governmental interests, and nothing in the proposed legislation would change that,” they wrote.

But legal experts take issue with [claims that the bill licenses discrimination], too.

“Opponents of the legislation may make unsupported claims about the extreme results that it would produce, but they have no examples of judicial decisions actually reaching such results,” the group of 16 law professors wrote.

Some state RFRA proposals go too far in attempting to protect those with religious objections to government regulation. But the federal law that is the model has proven a reasonable balance between the interests of the state and the protection of religious freedom. We should continue to monitor courts’ application of the law and the claims being made under the law. But the dire warnings on both sides regarding the state of religious liberty and the impacts of RFRA laws should be toned down to reflect reality.

Will lawmakers or advocates follow this admonition? Who knows. Probably not. But it is nice to see the media coverage following the letter. All too often news coverage of these proposals focus on the extreme positions. The Indianapolis Star article, however, uses the professors’ arguments to provide a good explanation of the bill and the exaggeration on both sides. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette also helpfully frames the bill.

Indiana’s Senate Judiciary Committee could take up the measure as soon as this afternoon. Stay tuned.