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Supreme Court of the United States

What’s the Difference Between Federal and State RFRAs? And Other Questions Answered

October 17, 2017
By: Emily Conley

Earlier this week, we responded to three arguments from those who oppose state-level religious freedom laws. Today, we’ll answer more of your questions from the comments, Facebook, and Twitter:

Q: Yes or no – RFRAs have only been used to deny service to LGBT people, and just like Jim Crow laws, they could allow people to deny service because of their “sincerely held religious belief.”

No – the reason this keeps coming up is because many people don’t have accurate information on RFRAs, or they’re intentionally misrepresenting the law. The facts: this law doesn’t “pre-determine” winners and losers – it just gives both sides a fair hearing in court. It limits government power over citizens’ lives, unless there’s a compelling reason for the government to force someone to violate their religious belief.

Every American should have the freedom to live and work consistently with their faith. Why wouldn’t someone support everyone having a fair hearing in court?

Click here and here, for examples of how RFRA has helped people.

Q: If this law isn’t different from the Federal RFRA, why do we need both? Isn’t the federal RFRA good enough?

Put simply, the federal RFRA only protects citizens from the federal government. The state law protects citizens from the state government. Both laws are designed to protect citizens from government overreach, unless there’s a compelling reason for the government’s actions.

Q: But don’t these state RFRAs expand rights to corporations instead of just individuals?

The Supreme Court clarified, in the case of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, that “corporations” aren’t impersonal office buildings; they’re made up of people. Therefore, they have the same religious freedom as people do. Just because those people run a business as a corporation shouldn’t mean they’re denied the same rights as others.

The majority opinion said it this way: “[W]e reject [the federal government’s] argument that the owners of the companies forfeited all RFRA protection when they decided to organize their businesses as corporations rather than sole proprietorships or general partnerships.”

Every American should have the freedom to live and work consistently with their faith. Again, the state RFRA’s don’t determine a winner and loser, they just give everyone, even Mennonite family-owned businesses like Conestoga Woods, a fair hearing when religious freedom is at stake.

Q: Under RFRAs, couldn’t a Muslim shop owner require women to wear head coverings to even enter their store, because of their religious beliefs? Isn’t that discriminatory?

This is what I like to call: “crazy talk.” RFRAs have been around for over 20 years, and they’ve never allowed businesses to discriminate on the basis of race or religion. During all those years, federal law has simultaneously protected religious freedom through federal RFRA and prohibited businesses from discriminating on the basis of race or religion. And in all 30 some states with RFRAs and RFRA-like protections, this has yet to happen.

While there have been zero incidents of LGBT not being able to receive goods or services, there have been many incidents of government overreach in religious freedom cases. 

The best case scenario: Every American should be treated with dignity, and ensured the right to live and work consistently with their faith, without fear of government overreach and punishment.

And our states would be better places if when we disagree - whether on abortion, or marriage, or free speech issues – we respect each other’s differences, and our leaders protected the freedom to have those differences.

If you support that, then you support RFRA.

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More questions? Leave them in the comments below.


Alliance Defending Freedom

Alliance Defending Freedom

Non-profit organization

Alliance Defending Freedom advocates for your right to freely live out your faith


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