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Georgia Is Not Alone In Scuffle Over 'Religious Liberty' Bills


In statehouses across the country, lawmakers are debating bills to protect those who, citing religious beliefs, refuse to serve gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people. Georgia's governor has vetoed such a bill, calling it discriminatory. But Mississippi's senate has approved similar legislation.

Now, for a look at this battle across the nation, we called Charles Haynes. He's the director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum, and we started the conversation with that Mississippi bill which the governor there says is not discriminatory.

CHARLES HAYNES: Well, one person's discrimination is another person's religious freedom, but in the Mississippi bill, if you're in a religious-affiliated group, you can refuse services to same-sex couples. You can refuse adoption to LBGT people. If you are a business that serves weddings, you can refuse to serve same-sex couples. So that may be religious liberty to some, but to others, that's discrimination.

CORNISH: Let's talk about some of the background here because a lot of these bills seem to spring in the aftermath of Supreme Court decisions - one, the Hobby Lobby ruling, which was the case that held that a company didn't have to offer its employees access to birth control, and another one from last year - Obergefell versus Hodges, which people know as the same-sex marriage ruling. Can you talk about how these come into play with the way states are approaching these laws?

HAYNES: After Hobby Lobby decision, I think many people believed - who opposed same sex marriage - they believed that that was a signal that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was used in Hobby Lobby - they thought, well, this might work to give us exemptions in the same-sex marriage arena. I don't think they're correct about that, but Hobby Lobby kind of brought RIFRA to the fore as a vehicle to ride if you oppose same-sex marriage.

CORNISH: And how's that different from Georgia's legislation which the governor there, Nathan Deal, actually vetoed?

HAYNES: Well, in Georgia, if the legislation had passed, people in religious groups and in businesses would have an opportunity to go and say, we need a religious exemption. And the government would have to show a compelling reason not to give it. I think the compelling reason is nondiscrimination and that that wouldn't work, but it was at least in a test to see if a religious exemption should be granted. In Mississippi, there's no such test. You just get the right to religious exemption.

CORNISH: So how many other states have similar bills in the works, and are you seeing the same text from state to state?

HAYNES: It's very different around the country. It's a mess. Twenty-one states actually now have Religious Freedom Restoration Acts which are modeled on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was used in Hobby Lobby. So there are these laws already in place. As I say, most experts don't think that these RIFRAs, as they're called, will actually serve to protect people from the same-sex marriage law, but they are being used that way.

Other states have tried different kinds of approaches. So Mississippi already has a RIFRA, so it doesn't need another one. This law is more modeled on some proposals in Congress right now to give broad religious exemptions to people in businesses, in religiously affiliated groups so that they can refuse to serve same-sex couples.

CORNISH: Have we reached this point with states passing these laws or attempting to pass these laws where people are questioning the legal line here? Is it clear when and how people can cite religious exemptions?

HAYNES: We have a long history of the United States providing exemptions on grounds of religion, protecting liberty of conscience. It's a fundamental American principle. But the line is drawn broadly when bad exemption interferes with the rights of other people, and that's where the debate is today. Can we protect religious people in the same-sex marriage debate without discriminating against LGBT people?

CORNISH: Charles Haynes is the director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

HAYNES: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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