church and state hi res_newWritten by Don Byrd

Arkansas’ House Judiciary Committee yesterday approved House Bill 1228, the Conscience Protection Act. The bill is actually a version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law that prohibits the government from substantially burdening religious exercise unless necessary to further a compelling state interest. Several states have enacted RFRA laws to apply the same standard to state and local governments as well.

House Bill 1228, however, does not mirror the federal law precisely. It places that extremely rigorous standard on not only “substantial” burdens but any burden. Hopefully the amendment process in the Arkansas legislature will tighten up that standard to reflect a more appropriate balance. [UPDATE 2/11: Indeed, the Arkansas House adopted Amendment 1, which replaces “burdens” with “substantially burdens.”]

Meanwhile, in Indiana, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a 5-hour hearing earlier this week on RFRA legislation that brought out the kind of unfortunate hyperbole this bill tends to inspire these days:

“Religious people are scared,” said Tim Overton, a Baptist pastor, citing concerns that he might be required to perform a same-sex marriage.

“I would ask that you protect us from that,” he said.

Critics, however, called the legislation a license to discriminate that will harm Indiana’s reputation.

The bill is, of course, not a license to discriminate, but neither is it required to protect a minister from being forced to perform a religious ceremony against his or her wishes.