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Mississippi RFRA

Mississippi RFRA

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Published by cottonmouthblog
Letter from various law professors concerning the Mississippi version of the "Turn Away the Gays" bill.
Letter from various law professors concerning the Mississippi version of the "Turn Away the Gays" bill.

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Published by: cottonmouthblog on Mar 02, 2014
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Douglas Laycock
February 11, 2014 Rep. Philip Gunn Speaker of the House Mississippi House of Representatives 400 High St. Jackson, MS 39201 Dear Speaker Gunn, We write to provide you our opinion about the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which recently passed the Mississippi Senate as part of Senate Bill 2681. We heartily endorse the Act, based on our years of teaching and scholarship on the law of religious freedom. The proposed Act is a version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs) that have been enacted at both the federal level (to govern federal law) and in eighteen states: Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. A number of other states
including Alaska, Hawaii, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Washington, and Wisconsin
have interpreted their state constitutions to provide similar protection. All in all, more than thirty of the fifty states and the federal government have provided, in one form or another, the protections for religious liberty that would be provided by the Act. In fact, Mississippi too has long provided this kind of protection for religious liberty. Passed in 1890 but still applicable today, Article 3, Section 18, of the Mississippi Constitution specifically addresses the free exercise of religion
: “[T]
he free enjoyment of all religious sentiments and the different modes of worship shall be held sacred.
” In
1985, the Mississippi Supreme Court interpreted this passage to provide the very kind of  protection for religious liberty that the Act now establishes by statute.
See In re Brown
, 478 So.2d 1033, 1039 (Miss. 1985)
(noting that only “compelling considerations”
can  justify infringing religious freedom). This does not make the Act unnecessary. Article 3, Section 18, of the Mississippi Constitution unambiguously protects religious freedom. But it speaks in quite general terms. State courts are always free to change their interpretations of state constitutions. Future courts hostile to religious liberty might re-interpret Article 3, Section 18, to give less protection to religious liberty (or to give none at all). In 1990, in
 Employment  Division v. Smith
, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), the United States Supreme Court did just that to
the federal C
onstitution’s guarantee of religious liberty, and any state agency or local
government in Mississippi could urge the Mississippi courts to reverse course and read the new federal rule into the Mississippi Constitution. By putting it in the Mississippi Code, the Act would give religious freedom lasting protection. Its detailed provisions would also give more precise instructions to judges about what to do with religious-liberty claims. The message that some government officials take from
 Employment Division v. Smith
 is that they have no obligation to make any religious exceptions, and that they don't even have to talk to religious groups or individuals seeking exceptions. By clearly telling state officials that they have to consider burdens on the exercise of religion, a state RFRA opens the door for discussion. These issues can often be worked out informally if people will just talk to each other in good faith. A state RFRA
like the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act
would help make that happen. The fact that Mississippi has been interpreting its state constitution
for almost thirty years
to provide the same kinds of protections as the Act should be sufficient proof that the Act will not cause the sky to fall. Moreover, the standard it creates now applies to the federal government and more than 30 of the states, and was the standard for the entire country from 1963 to 1990. In the places where this standard applies, it has not been interpreted in crazy ways that have caused problems for those jurisdictions; if anything, these laws have been enforced too cautiously. These laws typically do not wind up applying to large numbers of cases. But those few cases are often of intense importance to the people affected. We should not punish a  person for practicing his religion unless we have a very good reason. These cases are about whether people pay fines, or go to jail, for practicing their religion
in America, in the 21st century. You are authorized to share this letter with anyone who is interested. Institutional affiliations of the signers are for identification only; none of our institutions takes a  position on the Act. Very truly yours, Prof. Michael W. McConnell Prof. Douglas Laycock Stanford Law School University of Virginia School of Law Prof. Marie Failinger Prof. Carl H. Esbeck Hamline University School of Law University of Missouri School of Law Prof. Richard W. Garnett Prof. Robert P. George  Notre Dame Law School Princeton University Prof. Mark S. Scarberry Prof. Emily Hartigan Pepperdine University School of Law St. Mary
s University School of Law

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