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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

What Does Indiana’s Religious Freedom Bill Actually Say?

If you paid attention to the news over the last few weeks, you probably heard about Indiana’s religious freedom law. The law, titled the "Religious Freedom and Restoration Act," sparked a firestorm of controversy around the country. Opponents of the bill claimed that it permitted discrimination against gays, lesbians, and the transgendered. Supporters claimed that it allows people the freedom to follow their religious beliefs. What was largely missing from the debate, however, was an objective legal analysis of what the law actually said.  

What many people may find surprising is that the law says nothing about homosexuality, gay marriage, or anything related to that topic.  The law does, however, state that the government may not "substantially burden a person’s right to exercise religion" unless there is a "compelling government interest" to do so, and it is the "least restrictive means possible." This means that the government cannot force someone to follow a law that would violate his or her religious beliefs unless it has a really good reason to do so. 

These types of religious freedom acts are not uncommon—twenty states (including Illinois) and the federal government have them. What makes the situation in Indiana different from other states, including Illinois, is that Indiana has not enacted laws to protect a person's sexual orientation. For example, in Illinois, the Illinois Human Rights Act forbids an employer from refusing to hire or taking negative employment action against an employee because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. Illinois also includes "sexual orientation" in the state's nondiscrimination statute that bans discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, etc. Last year, same sex marriage became legal in Illinois.

Ultimately, the lesson employers can learn from the outcry over Indiana’s religious freedom act is that the public is sensitive to discrimination, legitimate or perceived, against gays and lesbians. Any action that may be seen as discriminatory could have serious ramifications for an employer, even if the employer is acting in accord with its religious beliefs.

Original Post Authored by Matt DiCianni, Ancel Glink


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