CONTRIBUTORS

Religious liberty bill will protect rights of all Mainers

Posted Nov. 13, 2013, at 1:31 p.m.
Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting
Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting

A recent BDN article regarding the religious liberty bill I am sponsoring is full of misperceptions, paranoia and inaccuracies. The article suggests that this bill is somehow designed to undermine gay marriage.

This is not about gay marriage. The bill, LD 1428, is about assuring the religious liberties spelled out in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution are protected for all Maine citizens. The goal is to prohibit Maine from burdening Mainers’ free exercise of religion without strong justification.

Those quoted in the article imply that this legislation is unnecessary because the First Amendment already guarantees religious freedom. A U.S. Supreme Court decision and recent actions by other states, however, suggest otherwise.

In 1993, the U.S. Congress passed the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which stated the government cannot place burdens on the free exercise of religion unless doing so serves a compelling state interest or is accomplished by the least restrictive means possible.

That law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, however, in 1997. The court ruled that while the law’s application to the federal government was constitutional, its extension to individual states was not.

Eighteen U.S. states have since adopted their own religious liberty laws as a result of that ruling.

In recent years, there has been a flurry of attacks on religious liberties around the U.S., such as demands that Christmas trees not be placed on public property and school plays make no reference to religion. Here in Maine, an elementary school was forced to drop the “Blessing of the Fleet” portion of its annual boat launching ceremony after being threatened with a lawsuit by a Washington special interest group. In Bar Harbor, the town council recently voted to remove a memorial to World War II veterans from a public park. Why? Because the memorial consisted of lights on a Christmas tree.

The common thread in all of these cases is an unprecedented attack on religious liberties in which those affected have no legal recourse.

The aim of my religious liberty bill is to join those other states in adopting religious freedom guidelines to prevent the government from being able to easily infringe on citizens’ rights to freely exercise their religion.

More specifically it would:

— Restore the compelling interest test and guarantee its application to all cases where the exercise of religion is burdened by state action;

— Provide a claim or defense to a person or persons whose exercise of religion is burdened by state action.

Religious rights are not for a specific group of people or individuals. They are for all of us. My bill would ensure those rights are protected by Maine law.

Senator David Burns, R-Whiting, serves on the Maine Legislature’s Judiciary, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and Government Oversight committees.

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