News (USA)

Religious freedom bills: The latest effort to counter advances in marriage equality

Religious freedom bills: The latest effort to counter advances in marriage equality
Alex Brandon, AP
Alex Brandon, AP

Updated: March 4, 2014.
Click here for a state-by-state update on current legislation.

WASHINGTON – Religious freedom bills in more than a dozen state legislatures this year mark the latest effort by opponents of same-sex marriage to counter the growing public acceptance of marriage equality, and the momentum of federal court rulings striking down state gay marriage bans.

The bills would codify protections for individuals and businesses who assert their religious beliefs in refusing service to gays, same-sex couples, and others whose behaviors or beliefs conflict with their own.

The measures have gained national attention since the highly publicized criticism of Arizona’s SB 1062, the first this year to reach a governor’s desk. Many of the bills have only recently been defeated or withdrawn, as lawmakers scramble to avoid the national spotlight that befell Arizona.

Proponents say the bills are about protecting religious freedom, not sanctioning discrimination, and that criticism by gay rights activists is unfounded. Yet in state after state, bill sponsors cite primarily two cases as examples for the bills’ need: a case in New Mexico where a photographer was sued for refusing to photograph a same-sex couple’s commitment ceremony; and a case where an Oregon bakery was cited for discriminating against a lesbian couple for refusing to bake a cake for their wedding.

In both states, same-sex marriage was not legal at the time (although it now is in New Mexico), but the businesses were found to have violated their state’s human rights acts which, in both states, prohibited discrimination against gays and lesbians in public accommodations (i.e., businesses licensed by the state to serve the general public).

Critics point to these arguments by state lawmakers as proof that the bills “are aimed squarely at disenfranchising the civil rights of same-sex couples and LGBTQ people.”

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, a group which advocates against marriage equality, and more recently against a number of other laws advancing LGBT rights, makes the case for the “religious freedom” bills in pointed language that the lawmakers have, in most cases, attempted to avoid.

“Wherever marriage is redefined, the story is the same: florists, photographers, bakers, caterers, social hall owners — anyone who runs a business that caters to the celebration of nuptials — these individuals are forced to choose between their deeply held beliefs about marriage and the prospect of being forced out of business by onerous lawsuits claiming ‘discrimination.’”

But in lawmakers’ attempts to avoid the perception that their bills are targeting LGBT people, they have been so broadly written that they could allow bartenders, restaurant owners and practically any business to use their religious beliefs as a shield to refuse service to people whose lifestyle isn’t in accordance with their beliefs.

Opponents say this opens the door to legally sanctioned discrimination against LGBT people.

Notably, only only 21 states currently protect people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, a stark contrast to a recent Gallup Poll that found nearly nine out of ten people in the United States think LGBT people are already protected from discrimination.

They are not.

In fact, LGBTQ people can still experience an outright refusal of services in most states when attempting to access a host of public accommodations including restaurants, parks, hotels, libraries, buses, museums, and elsewhere simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

And where there are protections, they often vary from state-to-state, and in city by city, as to where discrimination is prohibited, i.e., employment, housing, and public accommodations.

In many states where humans rights charters do not currently include sexual orientation and gender identity, local municipalities have stepped up to do what state lawmakers have not. Take Arizona, for example, where the state’s largest cities (Phoenix and Tucson) have enacted LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances. Arizona’s SB 1062, had it not been vetoed, would have rendered those local ordinances unenforceable.

According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 organized religions in the world, and in absence of comprehensive federal protections for LGBT people, “religious freedom” bills pending in these states could have the effect of legalizing widespread discrimination:

State-by-state update on current legislation:


SB 1062 and HB 2153. Chief Sponsors: Sen. Steven B. Yarbrough (R-Chandler) and Rep. Eddie Farnsworth (R-Gilbert). The legislation stated the state shall not “burden a person’s exercise of religion,” effectively allowing businesses to refuse service to LGBT individuals. The measure was approved in the House and Senate, but vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer (R) on Feb. 26. More on SB 1062 is here.


HB 1023 and SB 377. Chief Sponsors: Rep. Sam Teasley (R-Marietta) and Sen. Joshua McKoon (R-Columbus). The state’s “Preservation of Religious Freedom Act” would affirm the “right to act or refuse to act in a manner substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious tenet or belief whether or not the exercise is compulsory or a central part or requirement of the person’s religious tenets or beliefs.” The House version was withdrawn on Feb. 27. The Senate version has not been placed on that chamber’s calendar.


HB 1624. Chief Sponsor: Rep. Robert McDermott (R-Ewa-Iroquois Point). The “Hawaii Religious Freedom Restoration Act” would allow “that government should not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification.” The bill was sent to the House floor on Feb. 14, 2014, after the House Judiciary Committee declined to hold a hearing. A majority, however, voted to send the bill back to the House Judiciary Committee, which effectively killed it for current session.


HB 427. Chief Sponsor: Rep. Lynn Luker (R-Boise). The Idaho bill would expand protections to individuals on “religious freedom” grounds, effectively allowing protections for discrimination against gays and lesbians. A companion measure, HB 426, would have specified that professionals who invoked these religious beliefs would not lose their occupational licenses. Luker withdrew the the bill on Feb. 19, 2014, after critics labeled it a “sword for discrimination.”


HB 2453. Chief Sponsor: Rep. Charles Macheers (R-Shawnee). The measure states that “no individual, religious entity or government official had to provide any service if it would be contrary to the sincerely held religious beliefs of the individual or religious entity regarding sex or gender.” The bill was approved in the House on Feb. 12, 2014, but killed in the Senate on Feb. 19, 2014, after GOP leaders declined to consider it in committee.


LD 1428. Chief Sponsor: Sen. David Burns (R-Whiting). The measure states “the government could not infringe upon a person’s religious freedom except in cases of ‘compelling state interest.'” The Senate rejected the bill on Feb. 18, 2014. The House followed suit two days later.


SB 2681. Chief Sponsor: Sen. Phillip A. Gandy (R-Waynesboro). The measure states: “The state could not burden a person’s right to the exercise of religion.” The bill was approved in the Senate on Jan. 31. On Feb. 26, a House subcommittee proposed removing the parts of the bill that would allow people to refuse service to others based on religious beliefs, leaving in tact language that state government cannot infringe on religious practices. Critics say the religious exemptions still apply to business owners, and that could turn away almost anyone for religious reasons. On March 4, the bill passed the House Judiciary B Committee and was sent to the full House for debate. More on SB 2681 is here.


SB 916. Chief Sponsor: Sen. Wayne Wallingford (R-Cape Girardeau). The Missouri bill, introduced Feb. 24, is patterned after Arizona and Kansas bills, and would allow Missouri business owners to cite religious beliefs as a legal justification for refusing to provide service. There has been no action on the bill.


HB 751. Chief Sponsor: Rep. Jacqueline Michelle Schaffer (R-Mecklenburg). The N.C. bill would prohibit the state or any of its agencies and local governments from “substantially burdening a person’s free exercise of religion.” North Carolina’s version didn’t make the legislature’s self-imposed “crossover deadline.” It isn’t technically eligible for consideration this year, but could be amended into any bill on the legislature’s calendar when they return to Raleigh in May.


SB 1846 and HB 2873. Chief Sponsors: Sen. Greg Treat (R-Oklahoma City) and Rep. Tom Newell (R-Seminole). The measure was introduced in the Senate in January, but it currently does not have any action scheduled in the state legislature. On Feb. 26, the House sponsor said the bill would be rewritten and likely won’t be considered in its current form this legislative session.


HB 376. Chief Sponsor: Rep. Bill Patmon (D-Cleveland). This proposed law mirrored Arizona bill, and is the only measure sponsored by a Democrat. On Feb. 25, Patmon withdrew the bill until it could be rewritten to erase concerns it might open the door to discrimination against LGBT people and others.


In Oregon, where Democrats control both the House and Senate, religious freedom proponents are hoping to put the measure before voters. In November 2013, the group “Friends of Religious Freedom” launched a ballot initiative “intended to exempt a person from supporting same-sex ceremonies in violation of deeply held religious beliefs.” The measure, “IP52”, is not officially on Oregon’s ballot yet; sponsors are still going through the Secretary of State’s office to qualify language before they can begin gathering petition signatures.


SB 128. Chief Sponsor: Sen. Phil Jensen (R-Rapid City). The measure state [to] “protect the citizens and businesses of South Dakota regarding speech pertaining to views on sexual orientation and to provide for the defense of such citizens and businesses.” On Feb. 18, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to kill the bill after opponents said it would have no practical effect but would be seen as mean and hateful.


SB 2566. Chief Sponsor: Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville). The measure employed similar language to the Arizona bill. After backlash from the business community similar to what was occurring in Arizona, Bell withdrew the bill from the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 18, ending its chances for consideration this session.


HB 4134 and SJR 6. Chief Sponsors: Del. Ricky Moye (D-Raleigh) and Sen. Clark Barnes (R-Randolph). The bills would require the government to show compelling interest and no other options if it chooses to enforce a law that substantially burden one’s religious beliefs. A separate bill (HB 3009) in the lower House is designed to protect students from religious discrimination.

This report will be updated as status of bills change.

Don't forget to share:

Support vital LGBTQ+ journalism

Reader contributions help keep LGBTQ Nation free, so that queer people get the news they need, with stories that mainstream media often leaves out. Can you contribute today?

Cancel anytime · Proudly LGBTQ+ owned and operated

Kerry speaks with Uganda president, says anti-gay law complicates U.S. ties

Previous article

NBA donating proceeds of Jason Collins jersey sales to LGBT groups

Next article