An unnecessary and rather alarming bill will be debated at the Maine Legislature this week. LD 1428, An Act to Protect Religious Freedom, would let a person — defined as “an individual, corporate body or religious organization” — claim that a law or regulation burdens a religious practice and sue the government, no matter how minor the apparent infringement. It would even make it legal for someone to sue based on an expected religious constraint in the future, without having to show harm.
“A government may not burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a facially neutral law or a law or rule of general applicability,” the bill states. Complainants would simply have to assert that an apparent burden inhibits their “conduct or expression” mandated by their “sincerely held religious tenet or belief” to file a lawsuit against a state, county or municipal government. It would be up to the government to prove why it has an interest in “infringing” on someone’s religious belief.
Of course freedom of religion is a basic right, and that right is already protected by Article 1 of the Maine Constitution and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Supreme Court has interpreted this clause to mean that “the freedom to believe is absolute, but the ability to act on those beliefs is not,” according to the First Amendment Center. The Maine Human Rights Act also provides freedom from discrimination based on religion.
But this bill, sponsored by Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, would let people claim their religious beliefs allow them to circumvent rules followed by everyone else — while showing little proof that the rules are oppressive. It would, in fact, open the doors to discrimination, as the bill includes no exemptions for civil rights or even public safety.
It might allow employers to only hire people who share their religion or fire unmarried women who become pregnant. Currently, medical professionals are not required to perform abortions if they don’t want to, but this law might allow them to deny patients any type of medical care based on their beliefs. A landlord might be able to deny housing to a gay tenant. The bill’s language is so broad that it could open up a host of problems at a time when there is no evidence that current protections for religious practices aren’t working.
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. It allows a religious employer, such as a church, to deny health insurance coverage for contraceptives. If there’s a need to add more religious exemptions, then they should be proposed. But a sweeping change to open the door to any exemption would clearly do more harm than good.
North Dakota’s lobbying organization for Catholic bishops, the North Dakota Catholic Conference, led a petition drive and put a similar measure on the ballot last year, but voters there resoundingly defeated it in June. It deserves to be defeated in Maine, too.
LD 1428 is scheduled to have a public hearing on Friday, May 10. The Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary would be wise to reject it.