As debate rages over Indiana's religious liberty law out of fear that the measure will be used to discriminate against gays and lesbians, Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist
details how similar laws have helped Americans in tangible ways.
The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in 1993 under former President Bill Clinton, after the bill was introduced by Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer in response to a Supreme Court ruling prohibiting American Indians from smoking peyote. The Indians had argued that smoking peyote was a religious practice.
Twenty states enacted religious freedom laws of their own after a second Supreme Court ruling, which said the federal statute did not apply to the states. Similar protections were passed in 13 other states.
"Yet when Indiana passed the legislation last week, the media characterized it as nothing more than a bigoted anti-gay bill, and celebrities and activists called for a boycott against the state," writes Hemingway, senior editor for The Federalist.
The purpose behind the religious freedom laws, she explains, is to provide recourse when those with religious beliefs say the government is infringing on their right to practice their religion as they see fit.
Hemingway gives several examples of those who have benefited from such laws.
- On March 10, the federal government turned over the eagle feathers it had confiscated from Robert Soto, a Lipan Apache religious leader, who said the feathers were sacred to the tribe's religion, after a nine-year court battle. He used the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as his defense as he faced 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for possessing eagle feathers without a permit.
- After a Texas city told Jose Merced, a Santeria Oba Oriate priest, that he could no longer sacrifice goats as part of his religion, he sued the city, saying it had violated his rights under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and won his case in 2009.
- Another religious liberty lawsuit was filed and won in Texas by an American Indian family that was told their son would have to cut his hair to enter kindergarten at a local school. Parents Kenney Arocha and Michelle Bettenbaugh and their son Adriel Arocha were honored by the American Civil Liberties Union for their fight.
- Muslim prisoner Abdul Muhammad, who is at a facility in Arkansas, challenged the rule that he could not keep his beard at the 1/2-inch length required under Islam. After he appealed based on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a religious liberty law for those in prison, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in his favor on Jan. 20.
- Appealing to the same federal law as Muhammad, Florida Orthodox Jewish prisoner Bruce Rich filed a lawsuit against the Sunshine State over the lack of kosher food at the prison. After the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in his favor, Florida began serving kosher meals to Jewish inmates, and Rich withdrew the lawsuit.
Hemingway also provides examples of cases in which the religious claimants were not successful in appealing to religious liberty laws, showing that such laws don't "guarantee a win, just a means to push back against the government."
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