AUGUSTA – Supporters of religious freedom flooded the State House on Thursday to voice support for a Washington County Republican’s bill to protect the free expression of religion from exercises of state power.
Sen. David Burns (R-Washington), the primary sponsor of L.D. 1428, An Act to Protect Religious Freedom, said the bill requires that any governmental action infringing on any persons’ exercise of religion must involve a compelling state interest.
“In short, this means that the state must have a strong justification before it infringes on religious liberty,” he said.
Burns used his testimony to address criticism levied against his bill and similar bills from other states.
“Let me be clear, L.D. 1428 does not create any new rights,” he said. “It does not, as some may suggest, make religious liberty a trump card against all government actions.” He said his bill merely protects the right to religious liberty established by the U.S. Constitution.
“The search for such liberty not only brought countless people to these shores, but it’s preeminent place in our Bill of Rights led it be known as our first freedom,” he said.
Reps. Jeff Giffords (R-Lincoln) and Lawrence Lockman (R-Amherst) also spoke in favor of the bill, as did Rep. Wayne Mitchell of the Penobscot Nation.
The key component of the bill would reestablish a test on government action that was struck down by a decades-old U.S. court decision. The legislation reads: “Reassertion of compelling interest test. The compelling interest test set forth in this Act and in federal court rulings prior to the Employment Division v. Smith, including Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972), and Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963), is a workable test for striking sensible balances between religious liberty and competing governmental interests.”
In a practical sense, the law would provide religious individuals with legal recourse should they believe Maine state law infringes on their religious liberty.
The legislation is similar to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, the Senate Republican Office said in a press release. “It passed with a unanimous vote in the U.S. House and a near unanimous vote in the Senate. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled part of the act unconstitutional, and as a result, 18 states, including some in the Northeast, have adopted their own religious liberty laws,” the office said.
Burns said fears about the bill spawning a wave of litigation were unfounded. In 16 states with a version of the religious liberty bill, he said 10 of them had two or fewer cases invoking the law.
Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, testified in opposition to the religious liberty bill.
“The great danger here is that the law may give special rights to some while infringing on the rights of others,” said Mills.
Mills said that an individual could be allowed to ritualistically slaughter dogs, drink brandy at work, or engage in likewise heinous activity, so long as they claimed it was part of their religion.
She also said she was concerned about the implication of this bill for child abuse, domestic abuse and animal welfare laws, implying that the bill would protect child abusers, domestic abusers, and animal abusers who claim it is their religious right to abuse children, spouses or animals.
Austin Nimmocks, an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, rejected Mills’ prediction of what might happened if the bill passes.
“I disagree, with all due respect, with [Attorney General Janet Mills],” said Nimmocks. “L.D. 1428 does not guarantee any specific outcome to any specific suit,” he said. He said the bill merely provides courts with a standard by which to evaluate state incursions on religious activity.
In the 21 year history of religious freedom amendments, said Nimmocks, none of the scenarios Mills predicted have come to fruition.
“It’s hard to understand arguments about the sky falling over religious freedom when we have such a long rich tradition of protecting religious freedom in this country without the sky falling,” he said.
He said he is aware of no case regarding any of the concerns raised by Mills, where a state enacted religious freedom law would justify the concerns she expressed. “[Alliance Defending Freedom] is not aware of one single case across the country where a spousal or other abuser has ever had their illegal actions vindicated at the hands of religious freedom.”
“When you’re going into uncharted waters, any number of concerns can be valid,” he said. “But religious freedom and states protecting religious freedom are not uncharted waters.”