MCPP Supports Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act

The Mississippi Center for Public Policy strongly supports passage of the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act (MS-RFRA). We are not alone in this position.

The federal RFRA was supported by a diverse coalition united in its passion for defending people of faith from discrimination. This coalition included groups on both the Right and the Left: the Christian Legal Society, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Americans for Democratic Action, Concerned Women for America, the National Council of Churches, the National Association of Evangelicals and many others. The Mississippi RFRA is essentially the same law as that supported by this broad coalition.

RFRA was passed in response to the 1990 Supreme Court decision, Employment Division v. Smith. As the Harvard Law Review explained at the time, Smith “eviscerated” and “gutted” the First Amendment. Congress’ response was to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. And in a subsequent decision (Boerne v. Flores), the Supreme Court indicated states could pass their own RFRA protections.

Some have asked why we need a Mississippi RFRA. Similar objections were raised against the U.S. Bill of Rights. There are many reasons our state needs this legislation. As the Declaration of Independence reminds us, all persons are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Yet, the Declaration itself is a testament to the unfortunate reality that governments very often threaten to encroach upon these rights. Another reason a state RFRA is necessary is because courts sometimes err in their understanding of fundamental rights – as the U.S. Supreme Court did in Smith. Third, a Mississippi RFRA is necessary because popular opinion is no sure safeguard of basic rights – rights that often need the most protection when public opinion is inflamed by misinformation. Finally, Mississippi needs RFRA because defending all people from religious discrimination is the right thing to do, especially in a state marred by its past failings to protect the liberties of vulnerable minorities.

A Mississippi RFRA would benefit our state in several ways. The primary goal of RFRA is to restore the full protections of the First Amendment traditionally recognized by U.S. and state courts, but weakened by decisions like Smith. In the wake of Smith, our courts lack a clear standard on questions related to the free exercise of religion. RFRA would address this deficiency by providing a statutory free exercise claim state courts would consider as they weigh the value of religious liberty. As President Bill Clinton explained upon signing RFRA, “This law basically says that the government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone’s free exercise of religion.” A Mississippi RFRA would also provide certainty and clarity for state and local governments as they strive to balance their respective duties against individual religious free exercise rights. For this reason, we believe the measure would lessen discrimination and reduce litigation.

In the end, Mississippi needs RFRA because, as Thomas Jefferson reminds us, “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.” Not to make every effort to defend these essential rights diminishes the value and freedoms of every person in our state.

3/31/14