The (Limited) Utility of State Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs): Part Two in a Two-Part Series of Columns

Posted in: Constitutional Law

As we noted in a column for this site two weeks ago, state religious freedom restoration acts, or RFRAs, such as the recently amended Indiana religious liberty statute, have been criticized on the ground that they are intended to permit discrimination against gays, lesbians, and same-sex couples in the provision of goods and services. Given the intensity of this national controversy, we think it would be useful to take a step back—indeed, to take several steps back—and look at the historical background and evolution of the RFRA device. In this column, we focus not on any particular state statute but rather on three general topics: (1) the purpose of the earliest state RFRA laws and how that purpose relates to the goals of the more recently enacted and proposed legislation; (2) the virtues (and drawbacks) of enacting a general religious liberty statute as opposed to adopting religion specific accommodations on a case-by-case basis; and (3) the best way, in light of the current controversy about the conflict between state RFRA laws and anti-discrimination principles, to move forward when state legislatures consider these laws.

The Purpose of Early State RFRAs and What It Tells Us About the Recent Legislative Efforts

As we discussed in Part One, the Supreme Court, in 1990, decided the case of Employment Division v. Smith, a dispute involving the right of Native Americans to use the proscribed substance of peyote in their religious rituals. The Court ruled that neutral laws of general applicability are not subject to any rigorous scrutiny even when these laws have the effect of burdening religious practices. Unless the state targets religion—think of a law prohibiting Catholics from attending Mass—the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment simply does not require the state to explain or justify a law that has the effect of prohibiting religiously mandated practices or requiring the performance of religiously prohibited conduct.

The Smith decision came as a surprise to many, perhaps most, constitutional scholars. Based on prior cases, the parties to Smith had assumed that the Free Exercise Clause required, even in the context of neutral laws of general applicability, the government had to justify burdens on religious practice by showing that laws creating such burdens were narrowly tailored to accomplish compelling governmental interests. It is true that the Supreme Court, in applying this “strict scrutiny” narrow tailoring/compelling interest test had very rarely actually ruled in favor of a plaintiff asserting a free exercise claim against a general law. But it had often reached its conclusion by nuanced application of strict scrutiny, rather than rejection of the need for meaningful governmental justification altogether. Prior to Smith, lower courts could not summarily dismiss free exercise claims. After Smith, the door to the federal courts was, in effect, locked tight against free exercise claimants.

The Smith decision drew fire both from legal scholars and advocacy groups. In 1993, Congress enacted the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), essentially to reinstate, as a matter of federal statute, the strict scrutiny religious liberty rights regime that individuals and institutions had previously understood to emanate from the Constitution itself. But in 1997, in City of Boerne v. Flores, the Supreme Court held that Congress exceed its enumerated powers in enacting RFRA insofar as RFRA applied to and regulated state and local governments. After Boerne, RFRA could be constitutionally applied only to burdens on religion created by the federal government.

This was the legal and political background against which several states considered the enactment of the first wave of state RFRA laws. It is important to recognize three conditions that characterize the consideration of state RFRA laws during this initial period in the late 1990s. First, support for or opposition to these laws did not correlate tightly to party affiliation. There was no doubt concern by some liberals about the application of state RFRAs to civil rights laws, but this concern was only part of the debate and did not cause legislators to be divided along party lines in their ultimate views on state RFRAs. In California, for example, in 1998, a state RFRA law passed both houses of the Democratic legislature, only to be vetoed by Republican Governor Pete Wilson.

Second, general concerns about the correctness of the Smith holding fueled the movement toward state RFRAs. Religious liberty proponents continued to believe and argue that free exercise rights should count for something if they were substantially burdened even by a neutral law of general applicability.

Third, the arguments in favor of state RFRAs were not grounded just in abstractions; they were nested in actual cases and real-world narratives. A pair of real-life settings received particular attention. One was land-use regulation. Religious congregations, it was argued, often found it extremely difficult to develop land to construct new houses of worship because of restrictive state and local zoning laws. Many towns didn’t seem to want new venues of worship in residential areas, or commercial districts, or even in agricultural zones. And minority faiths seemed to bear the brunt of these regulatory restrictions. The other narrative involved the religious freedom of prison inmates. It was widely believed that state prison authorities imposed relatively arbitrary burdens on the ability of inmates to engage in worship or other religious activities.

The first and third of these conditions no longer exist today. As to the first, religious liberty legislation is far too often a partisan political issue at this moment, with Republicans favoring state RFRAs and Democrats opposing them.

And, importantly, as to the third, the pair of persuasive narratives for adopting a state RFRA—the burdens created by state and local land use regulations on congregations trying to develop land for a new house of worship and the difficulties state prison inmates experienced in engaging in religious worship and exercise—were effectively dealt with by federal legislation. In 2000, Congress enacted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). RLUIPA requires state and local governments to justify under rigorous review land use regulations or decisions that substantially burden the use of land for religious purposes and prison regulations and decisions that substantially interfere with the ability of inmates to engage in religious worship or otherwise follow the dictates of their faith. Because RLUIPA invokes Congress’s Spending Clause power to attach conditions to federal funding—and because virtually all state and local governments and prisons depend on federal funding—RLUIPA has been upheld and applied by countless lower federal courts and (in the context of the prison provisions) the Supreme Court.

Recent state RFRA laws and proposals can still be justified by the second backdrop condition animating the first generation of state RFRAs—the abstract idea that Smith created a gap in the protection of religious liberty, and that religious activity deserves to be protected to some extent against even neutral laws of general applicability. But because, other than the land-use and prison settings, there are no easily described categories of state regulatory activity that burden religion in ways most people find problematic, a modern state RFRA might seem like a solution in search of a problem. Indeed, the only unifying narrative that describes a general problem, as opposed to isolated cases, to which modern RFRAs might be directed is the narrative grounded in religious objections to same-sex marriage and the claims for exemptions from civil rights regulations that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

This is the crux of the problem. Legislators and governors who argue that they support a state RFRA law today for reasons that have nothing to do with discrimination related to same-sex marriage have a difficult time persuading anyone of their position because there are no religious liberty narratives involving significant real-world areas of concern other than civil rights laws. The original, principled basis for enacting state RFRA laws still exists, and state RFRAs certainly may be of value to religious individuals or institutions in occasional varied circumstances—religious burdens do arise outside of land-use and prison contexts as we demonstrated with some hypothetical examples at the end of Part One of this series—but there is no well-organized storyline here that can be easily understood and valued. In other words, because, after RLUIPA, the contexts in which state RFRAs might provide needed protection do not fall into any easy-to-define or easy-to-predict categories of regulation, avoiding antidiscrimination laws is the primary narrative that is still left standing. It is the one that most people see. And, to be frank, it certainly appears to be the primary motivation for the introduction of new RFRA bills in state legislatures these days.

A General Religious Liberty Statute Versus Religion-Specific Accommodations on a Case-by-Case Basis

Assuming that some exemptions for religious activity outside of the land-use and prison arenas may be worthwhile, the question becomes whether a state statute (e.g., a RFRA) is the best way to facilitate them. Another way of framing the issue is, given that some religious exemptions will be recognized by government, whether we are better off determining when exemptions should be granted by having the more political branches of government evaluate practice- or sect-specific requests for accommodation, or whether it would be preferable to enact a general religious liberty statute, like a state RFRA, and shift the task of determining when an exemption is appropriate to the judiciary. We think general religious liberty statutes have some important virtues over religious practice- or sect-specific accommodations.

First, the general religious liberty statute is, by definition, general. It seeks formally to apply the same standard to all faiths. Thus, a religious person’s ability to obtain an exemption will not, in theory at least, depend on his or her ability to influence the political branches of government. It is true that judges, like legislators, may also be unfamiliar with or unsympathetic to religious minorities. Still, under a general religious liberty statute, a minority faith with insufficient muscle to achieve an accommodation through political channels has an additional forum where its claims can be heard—a court of law.

Second, the business of obtaining sect- or practice-specific accommodations has other serious drawbacks. Restricting religious exemptions to the political branches of government politicizes religion. The freedom to practice one’s faith becomes a benefit controlled by the government. Accordingly, religious groups have to organize politically as religious groups to obtain the exemptions their faith requires.

Third, and related, a system in which all accommodations are political actions requires religious individuals and groups to spend their political capital on freedoms that should be theirs as of right. This system operates like a political tax on religion.

Fourth, if the ability to practice one’s faith depends on a religious group’s political power in a jurisdiction, we create an incentive for religious people to live in communities where there are a sufficiently large number of co-religionists to influence the government. A legal regime that promotes the segregation of communities along religious lines is problematic and much less desirable than a regime that facilitates the religious integration of our communities.

Of course, there are problems with general religious liberty statutes as well. The standard of review to be applied by courts in these laws is intrinsically subjective, value-laden and unpredictable. No one can really be sure how a given court will interpret and apply the law to the facts of any given case. Accordingly, the protection provided to religious liberty may turn out to be much narrower or much broader than the community anticipated when it enacted the law. In theory these statutes can be amended to cure wrongly decided cases, but there is no guarantee that the political branches of government will be capable of effectively monitoring and responding to errant RFRA decisions by courts.

Moreover, the indeterminacy inherent in these laws means that, at least initially and in all cases of first impression, they will provide little guidance either to potential defendants or to plaintiffs. In the context of anti-discrimination laws, uncertainty imposes serious burdens on all the relevant parties. Service providers do not know if they are permitted to deny services for same-sex weddings, for example, because of their religious objections to such ceremonies. And same-sex couples lack the security of knowing that they cannot be denied the services they seek when they attempt to patronize a provider of wedding services.

While we recognize that reasonable people can disagree on this point, we think on balance there are legitimate reasons for a state to consider enacting a state RFRA law. But that does not mean that we think the RFRA law should operate to provide exemptions in all cases in which religious exercise is substantially burdened by law.

What is the Best Way for State Legislatures to Balance State RFRAs and Anti-Discrimination Principles?

Church-state scholars generally agree that most RFRA challenges to civil rights laws governing for-profit economic activity will and should be unsuccessful. The state has a compelling state interest in protecting members of particular classes against discrimination in the workplace and in places of public accommodation. And conventional civil rights laws are the least restrictive means available to accomplish this egalitarian goal. Still, no one is certain that all RFRA claims against regulations prohibiting discrimination will fail. Nor is there agreement as to which claims, if any, deserve to succeed.

Because RFRA laws are unlikely to provide any kind of expansive protection to discrimination in employment or public accommodations based on religious beliefs, an obvious solution to the controversy surrounding these laws would be to enact a civil rights carve-out that limits the scope of the RFRA legislation. Indiana amended its RFRA law to provide explicitly that the law does not authorize, or establish a defense for, discrimination in employment or places of public accommodation. Such a civil rights carve-out would make the RFRA law available to protect religious liberty in in various idiosyncratic circumstances in which general laws unnecessarily burden religious practice, but would preclude any possibility that the law would undermine the enforcement of anti-discrimination regulations.

The argument against a civil rights carve-out is that it could carve out too many RFRA claims. Many proponents of state RFRAs argue that there are at least a limited number of situations in which religious exemptions to some civil rights laws are justified, and yet these claims would be excluded from protection under a general civil rights carve-out. These arguments often focus on caterers, bakers, florists and photographers who provide goods and services for wedding ceremonies and receptions, but the arguments are not limited to these commercial activities.

We think the appropriate response to these concerns is straightforward. In addition to adopting a broad civil rights carve-out from the state RFRA, the state could negotiate explicit exemptions—exceptions to the carve-out, if you will—to cover the limited number of situations in which faith-based discrimination might deserve to be protected against civil rights laws. From a policy perspective, this approach would have several advantages. It would provide more clarity than a generic state RFRA. It would guarantee religious exemptions to civil rights laws in specific circumstances where they were thought to be particularly justified. It would avoid any concern that the law would be interpreted too broadly to protect discrimination in inappropriate circumstances. And it would allow a state RFRA to be adopted to protect religious liberty in all of the situations that do not involve discrimination in violation of civil rights laws.

Our suggested course of action may be challenged, however, by the argument that such negotiations in the legislature about the particular exceptions to a civil rights carve-out would be futile. The two sides debating religious liberty and gay rights issues are so polarized that they would never agree on explicit limited exemptions. We are unconvinced that this will always be the case—particularly if states that currently do not protect gays and lesbians or same-sex couples from discrimination bring legislation prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and identity to the bargaining table. Working out what the specific exemptions for religion-based discrimination will undoubtedly be hard political work. But that is no reason not to engage in the attempt.