We need a Freedom of Association Restoration ActCredit: Ken Lund / photo on flickrThe Mississippi legislature (both houses) yesterday passed the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law that would allow citizens to fight back against state and local regulations that place a burden on the right to freely practice one’s religion.

The legislation has already been compared to Arizona’s recent proposal that was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer. Though the Arizona law never mentioned sexual orientation, it was clearly a response to anti-discrimination suits in other states where businesses had refused to provide goods and services like wedding cakes and photography to same-sex couples because they had religious objections to gay marriage. Once again, Mississippi’s law is being cast as anti-gay legislation.

There is a significant difference here, though. The law that Mississippi is passing is not as broad as what was proposed in Arizona and almost perfectly mimics the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which provides the same guidelines for federal laws (and is currently part of the debate in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby over whether private businesses can be required to fund contraceptive coverage for employees). You can compare the Mississippi version here with the federal version here. Neither bill is that long or complicated. It states that the government has to prove that it has a compelling interest in creating any sort of burden on a person’s practice of religion and prove that this burden is the least restrictive means of forwarding that interest. It doesn’t guarantee that individuals or businesses can discriminate against anybody about whatever they can tie to religion.

The bill didn’t start off that way, so it should be noted that parts of the legislation that civil rights groups opposed to were stripped out to get it passed. Nevertheless, the American Civil Liberties Union opposes the bill, continuing its apparent disappointing position that there’s no such thing as freedom of association.