ADL slams controversial 'religious freedom' laws in US

Jewish group calls on 17 American states with existing Religious Freedom Restoration Acts to amend language of the law to “ensure they cannot be used to discriminate or harm others."

April 2, 2015 18:46
3 minute read.
religious freedom bill

Demonstrators in Indianapolis gather to protest a controversial religious freedom bill recently signed into law. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The Anti-Defamation League on Thursday weighed in on controversial bills in the US aimed at protecting religious liberty that critics worry will allow businesses to discriminate against homosexuals.

In a statement on Thursday, the national Jewish organization called on the seventeen states with existing Religious Freedom Restoration Acts to amend the language of the law to “ensure they cannot be used to discriminate or harm others.”

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Both Arkansas and Indiana just passed such bills, which will keep the government from forcing business owners to act against their strongly held religious beliefs, according to supporters.

The Indiana bill stipulates that “a governmental entity may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if the governmental entity demonstrates that application of the burden to the person: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

“ADL is an ardent advocate for religious freedom, but America’s protections for free exercise of religion were never intended to be a sword to harm or discriminate against others,” said ADL chief Abraham Foxman, echoing concerns that the law would allow businesses to discriminate against serving LGBT people because of religious objections to their lifestyle.

“Although such bills appear to primarily target the LGBT community, businesses could use them to deny service based on religion, gender or ethnicity.  Last year, at least eight such measures were filed in state legislatures. All but Mississippi’s failed when an Arizona bill – similar to the new Indiana law – was vetoed under intense pressure from civil rights groups and major business interests.  So far this year, 14 state bills have been filed,” he said in a joint statement with ADL national chair Barry Curtiss-Lusher.

Both Indiana and Arkansas are looking to rework the laws in light of widespread protests.

Some of the most powerful US companies, including Apple, Angie's List, diesel engine-maker Cummins Inc, Salesforce Marketing Cloud and drug-maker Eli Lilly and Co, had called on Indiana Governor Mike Pence to clarify or repeal the law, which passed with an overwhelming majority in the state's legislature.

“Apple is open for everyone. We are deeply disappointed in Indiana's new law and calling on Arkansas Gov. to veto the similar #HB1228,” Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted last week.

The ADL also called on state legislatures “deliberating a similar measure to cease consideration of them. And in light of the US Supreme Court’s deeply troubling Hobby Lobby decision, we urge Congress and states with existing RFRAs to review, and if necessary amend, their laws to ensure they cannot be used to discriminate or harm the rights of others.”

The ADL was referring to last year’s supreme court ruling that a privately held business may refuse to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives to employees.

Jewish groups lined up on both sides of the issue, with Orthodox groups likening the law to mandates overseas banning ritual slaughter and liberal Jewish groups saying its reversal would impinge on the rights of women and could set a precedent allowing employers to deny a range of services for religious beliefs, for instance blood transfusions and other medical interventions.

“Contrary to claims of proponents, the Indiana, Arkansas and other state measures are not the same as the 1993 federal RFRA,” Foxman and Lusher said.

“ADL supported the federal law because it was a shield to protect the religious exercise of individuals and faith-based institutions from government infringement.  It was never intended to apply to for-profit businesses or be raised as a defense in private disputes.  However, the US Supreme Court’s 2014 Hobby Lobby decision extended federal RFRA protections to for-profit, close corporations, and served as the impetus for even broader, problematic state bills that have come in reaction to progress on marriage equality.”

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