ACLU

Ohio Bill Sparks Debate About Religious Freedom

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credit: Ian Sane / Foter.com / CC BY

A piece of legislation in Ohio is causing some controversy as it aims to affect the practice of religion. The bill's proponents say it will reinforce the First Amendment's protection of religious freedom, whereas its detractors are concerned that it will blur the line between church and state.

State Representatives Tim Derickson (R-Oxford) and Bill Patmon (D-Cleveland) introduced the Ohio Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) last Wednesday. The bill would require that the state demonstrate "compelling government interest" to create any laws, policies, or regulations that place burdens on the exercise of religion.

Patmon announced at a press conference that "this legislation will help reassert the foundation upon which this country was founded and has grown and prospered on—freedom of religion and the practice of it."

However, various groups are arguing about the legality of the bill, and whether it would protect religion or push it on others. At odds on the issues are the American Civil Liberties Union's communications coordinator, Nick Worner, and the Alliance Defending Freedom's legal counsel, Joseph LaRue. The Columbus Dispatch reports:

"The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Whatever a piece of state legislation does, it's not going to trump the U.S. Constitution," Worner said. "Individual religious freedom is extremely important, but it's never been a free pass to impose your religious beliefs on other people."

LaRue, who helped draft the Ohio bill, agrees with the ACLU that the U.S. Constitution is the law of the land, but adds, "That's only part of the story."

"The U.S. Constitution is a baseline," he said. "States can go above and beyond what the U.S. Constitution provides."

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"What we've seen in states without RFRA is an increasing and creeping reduction in religious freedom," LaRue said. "They are taking away rights of individuals to live their lives in public consistent with their faith."

Another Dispatch article quotes Patrick Elliott of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He warns that "the wording is so broad that all aspects of state enforcement, state statutes, and local ordinances would be impacted."

On the other hand, Patmon's and Derickson's bill finds precedence in the federal RFRA, which passed twenty years ago, and 17 similar state-based pieces of legislation, none of which have resulted in the cataclysm against which Elliot warns.

How exactly the bill will play out if passed is unknown. Responding to a recent incident in which the ACLU persuaded an Ohio public school to remove religious artwork, LaRue and Patmon – who are on the same side of the debate over the Ohio Religious Freedom Restoration Act – expressed contradictory opinions in the Dispatch about how the legislation would affect such situations.

With 45 cosponsors, nearly half of the state's representatives have expressed support for the bill. The vast majority of cosponsors are Republicans.