January 29, 2016

Religious liberty is among freedoms to be protected under proposed bill

A view of the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

A view of the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

Indiana lawmakers are considering a bill to protect fundamental freedoms for all its citizens, including religious freedom.

Senate Bill 66, authored by Sen. Mike Young (R-Indianapolis), would repeal Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and ensure that several fundamental freedoms that are guaranteed in the state Constitution will be state law.

These freedoms include the freedom to worship God according to one’s own conscience; freedom to exercise one’s religion without government interference with conscience; freedom of speech; free exchange of ideas; freedom to assemble; and the freedom to bear arms. In addition, the proposed law would codify for state law purposes the provision in the First Amendment that the state government will give no preference to any creed or religion.

The proposal to strengthen the fundamental freedoms was prompted in part because of the state’s passage of RFRA last year, according to Young.

The senator described the language in the RFRA “fix” as “convoluted and difficult.” Young said his bill provides an opportunity for the state to “clean the slate.” He asked, “Why should we protect just one of our fundamental freedoms? Why not protect all six?”

Young, an attorney, explained that without the strictest level of judicial scrutiny in place for fundamental rights, which Indiana’s RFRA lacks, citizens’ individual rights could be watered down by the judicial standard a court uses to decide a case.

“If the government is going to take away one of my fundamental rights, the government better have a very, very good reason to do so,” he said. “I want the highest standard of judicial scrutiny because it makes government less likely, and more difficult for government to take away my personal liberty.”

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, who serves as the legislative and public policy spokesperson for the Church in Indiana, said, “The Catholic Church is supportive of Senate Bill 66 because it establishes a needed standard that protects and balances interests of individuals and institutions, as well as the state’s. When there is a compelling state interest for a law or regulation, it must be done in the least restrictive manner, protecting both the state’s interests and the conscience and fundamental freedoms of all.

“We need to recognize a new trend in this country of government expanding its regulatory power to redefine and intrude into areas traditionally beyond the authority of the state,” Tebbe added. He cited state-mandated coverage of contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs forced upon Catholic employers as one example.

Another example is in licensure or accreditation. “These requirements should not include unnecessary rules that compel persons or agencies to act against their religious beliefs. These rules have forced adoption agencies out of existence in the state of Illinois,” Tebbe said. “These examples illustrate an intrusion upon religious freedom and matters of conscience where either individuals or institutions are forced to act contrary to their creed or conscience. Senate Bill 66 protects against government over-reach.”

Young shared an example of the state providing a compelling interest to take away a citizen’s right of free speech as it pertains to yelling “fire” in a public place. He explained that to take away a person’s fundamental rights, the government has to have a very good reason to do so. In legal terms, this is called the compelling interest test. For a person to shout “fire,” without there being an actual fire, puts the public at risk, and therefore is illegal.

Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community have expressed concerns about the bill. They supported last year’s amended RFRA because they felt it prohibited discrimination. Chris Paulsen, who represents Freedom Indiana, a group that fought for marriage redefinition in Indiana, told local news affiliates that Sen. Young’s bill was “back-tracking.”

When asked how he would respond to the LGBT groups’ concerns over Senate Bill 66, Young said, “Protecting our fundamental freedoms protects all citizens—black, white, Catholic, Protestant, atheist, gay and lesbian. It protects all citizens.”

Young said he sees the civil rights issue that the LGBT community is seeking as a separate issue from the fundamental freedoms bill, and says it should be treated that way.

Senate Bill 66 was heard in the Senate Judiciary committee on Jan. 27, and following committee passage it will move to the full Senate floor for second reading.

“I’m hopeful the bill will pass the Senate before the end of January,” Tebbe said. “It’s hard to predict if Senate Bill 66 will pass this year. A lot can happen between now and March 16, when the Indiana General Assembly adjourns.

“What I do know is that the Indiana Catholic Conference will be doing our part to ensure that these fundamental liberties, namely our religious freedom, are strengthened and protected.”

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion. For more information about the Indiana Catholic Conference, its Indiana Catholic Action Network and the bills it is following in the Indiana General Assembly this year, log on to www.indianacc.org.)

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