Answers to common questions about religious freedom legislation

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Arkansas and Indiana leaders agreed Thursday to modify new state laws that were billed as protecting religious freedom but drew criticism from across the country as opening the door to anti-LGBT discrimination.

The Republican governors of both states signed off on changes approved by the legislatures aimed at clarifying the intent behind the legislation.

To a large extent, the measures were modeled after a federal law enacted in 1993 with broad bipartisan support. But critics of the new measures say they were designed with a different motive – to shield businesses and individuals who do not want to serve gays and lesbians, such as florists or caterers who might be hired for a same-sex wedding.

Here’s some of the background about these laws:

Q: What was the purpose of the 1993 federal law?

A: The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act arose from a case related to the use of peyote in a Native American ritual. It has since been used by other individuals who claimed the government was infringing on their religious rights, such as a Sikh woman who was fired by the IRS for wearing a 3-inch ceremonial dagger to work.

In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal law did not apply to the states, so states began enacting their own laws. They are now on the books in 21 states.

Q: What’s changed in recent years?

A: In the past two years, numerous judges across the country have struck down state bans on same-sex marriage, which is now legal in 37 states, and the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments April 28 in a case over the constitutionality of such bans that could legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.

The push for religious freedom laws has been spurred by those developments and by the Supreme Court’s ruling last year that Hobby Lobby and certain other private businesses with religious objections could opt out of providing the free contraceptive coverage required by the Affordable Care Act.

In another key case, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that a photography studio violated the state’s Human Rights Act by refusing to photograph a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony. The court rejected the studio’s effort to invoke the state’s religious freedom act, holding that the law applied only to lawsuits against a government agency, not to disputes between private parties.

Partly in response to that case, conservative lawmakers in several states proposed religious-protection legislation aimed at shielding people from private discrimination lawsuits if they felt that doing business with same-sex couples violated their religious beliefs.

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Q: What do the new state laws say?

A: The Indiana and Arkansas measures did not specifically mention gays and lesbians, though they had strong backing from lawmakers and conservative activists who have opposed same-sex marriage and were unhappy with its spread.

The measures say that state laws and regulations cannot infringe on a person’s religious practice unless the government can show that it has a compelling interest in doing so.

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