'Religious Freedom' Bill in Maine Would Lead to Legalized Discrimination, Opponents Say

Article excerpt

AUGUSTA, Maine -- Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, says Mainers need protection from state laws that may impede their religious freedom. But the law he proposes to achieve it is drawing fierce criticism from those who say his bill would create an open door to legalizing discrimination.

Burns said his proposed legislation, LD 1428, would codify into Maine statute a 1993 federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which turned back a Supreme Court decision that said laws that could infringe on religious activity are constitutional as long as they didn't single out any particular religion.

Instead, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act looked to former court precedent, ruling government must show a "compelling" interest if it "substantially" burdened anyone's freedom of religious exercise. Then, in 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applied only to the federal government, not the states. Since then, 18 states have adopted their own laws similar to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Burns' bill would institute a similar standard in Maine: It would restore the "compelling interest" test and provide a claim or defense to a person whose exercise of religion is burdened by state action or law.

In other words, anyone claiming a legitimate religious belief could sue the state if they thought a state law burdened their religious exercise. One could also claim religious belief as a defense in court. The legal burden would be on the state to justify its law or action.

Burns, who is a member of the Judiciary Committee, which heard testimony from dozens of people for and against the bill Thursday, told the panel that the law was essential to protecting Mainers' First Amendment rights.

"Without sufficient protection for this right, citizens are never more than one judicial opinion away from losing their religious freedom," he said.

Burns' bill differs from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in providing claim or defense for any "burden" on religious exercise -- substantial or otherwise.

The term is legally significant, said Zachary Heiden, an attorney with the ACLU of Maine, who said any minor inconvenience could be considered a "burden."

Heiden joined a coalition of opponents to Burns' bill, who said the law would elevate religious belief to a level that legally protected discrimination, and put one person's religious beliefs ahead of laws meant to protect all Mainers. …