Religious Freedom wins in Mississippi

In a victory for religious freedom, last week Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant (R) signed into law the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Mississippi law is based on the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was sponsored by then-Rep. Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.), and the late Senator Edward Kennedy (D–Mass.). Passed by an overwhelming majority in the Senate and unanimously in the House, RFRA was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. This federal law prohibits substantial government burdens on religious exercise unless the government can show a compelling interest in burdening religious liberty and does so through the least restrictive means.

By passing its Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Mississippi joins the 18 other states that have implemented RFRAs; 11 additional states have religious liberty protections that state courts have interpreted to provide a similar level of protection. These laws place the onus on the government to justify its actions in burdening the free exercise of religion.

Mississippi’s RFRA could provide individuals like Jagjeet Singh a way to challenge government actions that discriminate against sincere religious belief and expression. As the ACLU reports, Singh is a commercial truck driver and a devout Sikh who wears a traditional kirpan (a small, spiritual sword worn on the waist) and turban. Last year, when he pulled over his truck in Mississippi to fix a flat tire, “officers called him a ‘terrorist’ and harassed and humiliated him because of his appearance and religious beliefs.” After berating Singh, the officers eventually arrested him, claiming he had refused to follow their orders.

Later, when Singh was waiting for his hearing, officers demanded he leave the courthouse. The judge told Singh’s lawyer “that he had expelled Mr. Singh from the courtroom because of his turban. He further stated that Mr. Singh would not be allowed to re-enter the courtroom unless he removed ‘that rag’ from his head and threatened to call Mr. Singh last on the docket if he continued to wear the religious headdress.” Mississippi’s RFRA could provide protection against any attempts by the government to burden Singh’s religious exercise and expression.

The law could also help religious organizations like Opulent Life Church in Holly Springs, Mississippi. When Pastor Telsa DeBerry’s growing congregation became too large for its worship space, the church attempted to move to a larger facility—only to encounter discriminatory zoning laws that effectively prohibited Opulent Life from renting commercial space. While Opulent Life eventually found reprieve from the discriminatory city ordinance under federal religious land use protections, state-level protections are necessary to ensure local and state laws do not burden religious free exercise.