EDITORIALS

Don’t let religion open doors to discrimination, reject unnecessary bill

A child holds a figurine of Baby Jesus as Pope Francis leads the Sunday Angelus prayer in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican Dec. 15, 2013.
TONY GENTILE | REUTERS
A child holds a figurine of Baby Jesus as Pope Francis leads the Sunday Angelus prayer in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican Dec. 15, 2013.
Posted Jan. 07, 2014, at 1:23 p.m.

One of the tenets of American democracy is individual freedom. With that comes people’s right to choose which religion they practice. They have the freedom to believe what they want. But that freedom to believe does not always translate to a freedom to act on those beliefs.

It is not legal for the owner of a restaurant to segregate customers based on race because he says his beliefs allow him to, for example. Similarly, it is not legal for a landlord to use religion as a defense for throwing out an unmarried tenant who becomes pregnant.

Yet one bill making the rounds again could confuse that. LD 1428, which was carried over from last session, would likely open Maine up to discrimination and frivolous lawsuits. We opposed it last spring, and the amended version under consideration now is not better.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, would let people sue the government if their “exercise of religion is burdened by state action.” In the bill, “burden” is defined broadly as “any action that directly or indirectly constrains, inhibits, curtails or denies the exercise of religion.”

It expands upon the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which said that the government shall not “substantially burden” a person’s exercise of religion. The Maine bill removes the word “substantially.” It also includes language that could allow people to sue based on an expected religious constraint in the future, without having to show harm.

“I’m not thinking about any particular issue or group, contrary to what has been suggested. This is about everybody’s religious freedom,” Burns said in explaining why he sponsored the bill.

Yet it would be helpful to know what problem, exactly, needs fixing. Religious freedom is already protected by Article 1 of the Maine Constitution and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Maine Human Rights Act also provides freedom from discrimination based on religion. The bill would flip logic on its head: Complainants could assert that a law inhibits their “conduct or expression,” and it would be up to the government to prove why it has an interest in “infringing” on someone’s religious belief.

There are already exemptions for certain religious practices. For instance, Maine law allows students to be absent from public school to observe a recognized religious holiday. It lets students enroll in school without a required immunization certificate, if immunizations run counter to a parent’s religion. It allows physicians to refuse to provide family planning services.

So if there’s a need to add more religious exemptions, they should be proposed. But a sweeping change to open the door to any exemption is not necessary and would likely do more harm than good. Lawmakers should reject LD 1428.

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