States Have Become The New Battleground For Religious Liberty

Kate Anderson 

  • Many states are looking at upcoming religious liberty battles as elected officials continue to introduce legislation with religious rights at their core. 
  • A host of bills have been introduced to state legislatures from Montana to South Carolina and Nebraska challenging laws restricting guns in churches, LGTBQ ideology and the ability of medical professionals to object to certain procedures. 
  • “I think it’s becoming apparent to believers in America, Christians, but those of other faiths as well, that there are threats to their freedom,” Travis Weber, vice president of government and policy at the Family Research Council, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

State elected officials across the country from Michigan to North Carolina to Nebraska are pushing legislation this year that will create a heated debate about the rights of religious Americans.

Faith-based bills are becoming more common as Americans push their representatives to protect their rights in medical care, therapy and employment. Multiple pieces of legislation have been introduced for the upcoming year with the goal of protecting religious communities, while some would limit protections for religious citizens.

One bill from state Republican Rep. Thomas Beach of South Carolina titled the “Live and Let Live Act” would protect religious Americans in the state from being discriminated against by the government if they have different views on marriage, sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Protecting religious freedom from governmental intrusion is a state interest of the highest order,” the bill read. “Legislation advances this interest by remedying, deterring, and preventing governmental interference with religious exercise in a way that complements the protections mandated by the state and federal constitutions.”

Beach’s bill cites instances in several states, including Colorado where Christian business owner Jack Phillips has been sued twice for refusing to bake or decorate a cake that goes against his religious beliefs regarding marriage and transgender ideology, as justification for concerns from religious South Carolinians that worry their state government might come after their First Amendment rights next.

Nathan Berkley, communications director from the Religious Freedom Institute, told the DCNF that the added protections the act would provide are “certainly welcome.”

“The South Carolina ‘Live and Let Live’ bill is a sound piece of legislation that broadly protects religious individuals and institutions holding traditional views on marriage and the nature of what it means to be male or female,” Berkely said. “The bill addresses several key sources of religious freedom infringements, which continue to proliferate across America.”

Another bill also aims to tackle conscientious objections due to religious beliefs in the medical field where many doctors, health care workers and therapists have felt pressured to conform to popular opinions on transgender medical procedures. Republican state Rep. Amy Regier of Montana filed House Bill 303 in January, explaining that her legislation would provide “preservation and protection for medical conscience,” according to the Montana Free Press.

Regier’s bill would allow medical professionals to elect to not provide services that would violate their “ethical, moral, or religious beliefs or principles,” but the Montana representative was clear that this would not justify refusing to help certain groups of people as some LGBTQ activists have claimed, according to the Montana Free Press.

 “HB 303, the Medical Ethics and Diversity Act (Med Act) is good for everyone,” Regier told the DCNF. “Patients should be able to have an honest relationship with their healthcare provider. They should know that their provider is free from the coercion of an ideology they don’t believe. [Nine] out of 10 people of faith would rather stop practicing medicine than violate their ethical, moral or religious belief.” 

Republican state Sen. Danny Britt of North Carolina reintroduced a piece of legislation that he has been fighting for since a church service in Texas was interrupted by a gunman in 2019, who was eventually taken down by a church member carrying a gun. Britt’s bill would allow members of a church that holds a service located in a school building on Sunday to conceal and carry a weapon.

“Many of these areas [in South Carolina] are rural communities, these areas are fairly isolated where there’s no nearby local law enforcement and what this bill does is it creates a narrow exception to allow these individuals to legally concealed carry in that church during hours that school is not in session, so that these parishioners can help keep the other members of the church safe,” Britt said.

North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has vetoed the bill several times in the past, but Britt said that he is more optimistic about the bill’s chances during the 2023 session and encouraged religious communities to get more involved in the legislative process.

“I think it’s always important for religious groups to get involved in all types of legislation and I think that the shared values of our religious groups often aligned with what is often best for our communities,” Britt said. “I mean our country, our Constitution, was founded on the belief that we need to keep God involved.”

Some legislation being introduced has not been as kind to religious Americans, according to faith-based organizations.

“I think it’s becoming apparent to believers in America, Christians, but those of other faiths as well, that there are threats to their freedom,” Travis Weber, vice president of government and policy at the Family Research Council, told the DCNF. “As well as other threats to the ability of believers to fully live out their faith in the public square.”

Minnesota has a bill on the docket that would ban “conversion therapy,” an attempt to counsel patients experiencing same-sex attraction or gender identity questions in accordance with traditional religious views on marriage and gender, for “vulnerable” children and adults. Democratic state Rep. Athena Hollins said the bill was “long overdue” and argued the practice of “conversion therapy” had been “denounced by every mainstream medical and mental health association,” but some religious groups are concerned about the consequences for religious therapists and families looking for counseling based on their values.Berkely told the DCNF that RFI could not directly comment on the bill but noted that in its current state, the bill has “no exception for instances in which a religious practitioner serves a client who wants to live in accord with his or her religious convictions.”

Most recently, a federal judge ruled that bans on conversion therapy in Florida cities like Tampa Bay or Boca Raton were unconstitutional.

In Michigan, legislators are looking to amend the state’s civil rights act to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes from discrimination under the law, according to the Michigan Advance. The bill introduced by Democratic state Sen. Jeremy Moss said that getting the bill passed wouldn’t “be a fight at all,” but religious groups are pushing back.

Michigan Catholic Conference (MCC) has made efforts to include language that would provide more protection for religious groups to exercise their beliefs regarding marriage and sexuality, according to the Michigan Advance. The bill’s proponents argue that MCC’s suggested changes would give religious groups an excuse to openly discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community.

Similarly, a state senator in Nebraska introduced an amendment that would ban children from attending “religious indoctrination camps” as a response to another bill that would prohibit anyone under the age of 19 from attending a drag show in the state.

Democratic state Sen. Meghan Hunt told the DCNF that she wanted to “make a point” and said the “amendment obviously won’t pass.”“I have introduced similar amendments in the past – e.g. in a session where we had a bill to require DNA collection of everyone accused of a crime, I amended DNA collection requirements on all kinds of other bills as devices to make a point,” Hunt said. “They aren’t meant to pass. They are meant to help kill harmful and discriminatory bills like LB371.”

Weber called this reasoning “absurd” and pointed out that regardless if it is supposed to pass or not the “hostile” attitude toward religious communities is blatant.

“[Hunt] says, ‘I’m using this to make a point,’ however, the fact that she would use this to make a point shows where she is at and I believe that is representative of where other representatives are at, namely coming from a perspective that’s very hostile to religious freedom. What she’s targeting here is church retreats, where children are educated in the ways of the faith, that’s absurd. I don’t really care that she is trying to make a point.”

Beach, Kalispell, Hollins and Moss did not respond to the DCNF’s Request for comment.

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