Oklahoma House approves religious liberty protection bill

Thursday, April 13, 2000

Rep. Raymond Va...
Rep. Raymond Vaughn

Citing concerns that the First Amendment fails to give religious believers enough protection from government intervention, the Oklahoma House of Representatives has approved a religious-liberty protection bill.

The Oklahoma Religious Freedom Restoration Act is modeled after Congress’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated in 1997. The Oklahoma bill also parallels bills in Alaska, New Mexico and Idaho. Idaho’s governor signed into law a religious-liberty restoration act on March 31 and New Mexico Gov. Gary E. Johnson signed one on April 12.

Oklahoma Republican state Rep. Raymond Vaughn, sponsor of the measure, said his bill was warranted because the Supreme Court’s 1990 ruling in Employment Div., v. Smith had eroded First Amendment protection of religious liberties.

Congress passed RFRA for the same reasons, claiming Smith essentially granted government carte blanche to create laws that incidentally infringe on religious practices without violating the First Amendment. The proponents of RFRA and the state measures also argue that before Smith, the federal courts required government to show a compelling interest in regulations affecting religious practices and that it used “the least restrictive means of furthering” that interest. Justice Antonin Scalia, however, wrote in Smith that religious liberty jurisprudence had included the use of the “compelling interest” test to invalidate a government action in only two instances.

According to Scalia in Smith, laws applying to all that do not intentionally target religious practices — but that happen to impede them — do not always amount to an unconstitutional government action. “We have never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate,” Scalia wrote.

Some opponents of religious-protection legislation argue that it treats religion preferentially by making it easier for religious objectors to obtain exemptions from government regulation. Moreover, opponents say that such laws will produce a glut of lawsuits challenging civil rights, government land-use laws, prison regulations and a host of health and welfare laws.

Vaughn’s bill does contain a provision that would permit a court to decide whether a lawsuit filed under the law was unfounded.

“Any person found by a court of competent jurisdiction to have abused the protection of this act by filing a frivolous or fraudulent claim may be assessed the court costs of the governmental entity and may be enjoined from filing further claims under this act,” the bill states.

The national American Civil Liberties Union has announced its opposition to the states’ efforts to pass religious liberty protection bills, arguing the laws could allow some religious groups to use the laws to discriminate against nonbelievers. The ACLU’s state affiliates, however, are permitted to decide whether to oppose or support the state initiatives.

Michael Camfield, development director of the Oklahoma ACLU, said his office’s limited resources had forced it to concentrate efforts on a House measure passed last week that would require science textbooks to acknowledge God as the sole creator of the universe.

Camfield, however, said his group was monitoring the language of the religious liberty protection bill. “In its present form, we have not found the bill to be worthy of serious opposition,” he said.

Vaughn’s bill, which has already passed the Oklahoma Senate, is now pending in a conference committee to allow the Senate to consider a House amendment dealing with technical language of the bill.