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Religious Freedom Acts Raise Controversy in US

Handout photo from Indiana Governor Mike Pence's office on the signing of the RFRA on March 26.
Handout photo from Indiana Governor Mike Pence's office on the signing of the RFRA on March 26.
Religious Freedom Acts Raise Controversy in the U.S.
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On March 26, Republican Governor Mike Pence of the state of Indiana signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, into law. Several days later, the Arkansas legislature passed a similar bill.

Supporters call them religious freedom laws. Opponents say they are laws that permit discriminatory acts against homosexuals and others.

After a week of public uproar over the new laws, government officials from Indiana and Arkansas backed away and amended the measures.

What is a Religious Freedom Restoration Act?

Back in 1993, the federal government passed an RFRA. Then-President Bill Clinton signed it into law. That original measure was designed to protect religious minorities from having to violate their beliefs in order to follow a general law.

It was created after a Native American man was dismissed from his job after he had failed a drug test. The drug he had used was peyote. His tribe used the plant in religious ceremonies. So the idea behind the law was to bar the government from unnecessary interference in an individual’s religious practices.

Before this year, 19 states had adopted their own RFRA laws. But the Indiana and Arkansas laws have been more widely disputed. One reason is because they make it possible for some companies and organizations – not just individuals – to say they have a religious reason not to follow a law.

The Indiana and Arkansas state laws follow a recent federal Supreme Court decision. The court ruled that the Hobby Lobby company could refuse to provide birth control to employees as a health benefit. Using birth control violates the owner’s Christian religious beliefs.

Some people also objected to the Indiana and Arkansas laws because they feared the laws could permit businesses to discriminate against homosexuals. Activists point to discrimination cases of the past, such as the New Mexico photographer who refused a gay couple as a client because her religion did not support gay marriage. The photographer lost that case. Under Indiana’s law she might have provided a better defense.

Supporters of Indiana’s RFRA say the state law is similar to the 1993 federal law. They say even President Barack Obama had supported the law when he was a state senator in Illinois.

Josh Ernest is the White House spokesman. He says the Indiana law was a “significant expansion” of the original federal RFRA.


Backlash to the expanded law in Indiana began with civil rights activists. They argued that the measure could permit a business to refuse service to people if such service created a “substantial burden” to a business owner’s religious beliefs.

Along with civil rights groups, celebrities, politicians and media spoke out against the law. Some presumed Republican presidential candidates gave support to Governor Pence and the law at first. But as criticism of the measure grew, many politicians reconsidered their original statements.

“The Indianapolis Star” newspaper ran a front page editorial with the headline “FIX THIS NOW” calling for a new law.

Changes to the laws

Five days after signing the RFRA, Governor Pence held a press conference. He said he had ordered the legislature to “fix” the bill. He said, “It would be helpful to move legislation this week that makes it clear that this law does not give businesses a right to deny services to anyone.”

That same day, Arkansas’ legislature passed an RFRA. Its governor Asa Hutchinson immediately sent the bill back for amendment.

Mr. Hutchinson said the bill would not receive such fast attention in ordinary times. But he said the times were not ordinary. He said the Arkansas government must find a balance and, in his words, “make sure that we communicate we’re not going to be a state that fails to recognize the diversity of our workplace, our economy and our future.”

But it was business interests, big and small, that exerted the most pressure on Indiana and Arkansas to change the laws.

Small businesses took action by putting up signs that say, “This business serves everyone.”

Big companies, including Accenture, Levi Strauss and Twitter, threatened to pull their business projects from Indiana. The retailer Walmart, the largest employer in the U.S., also protested the law to the Arkansas state government.

Then, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, headquartered in Indiana, demanded that changes be made to the bill to prevent discrimination. The NCAA Final Four basketball competition is taking place Saturday in Indiana. The Final Four is one of the most popular sporting events in the U.S.

Even the professional competitive car racing organization, NASCAR, tweeted its displeasure with the bill. NASCAR is generally considered a stronghold of conservative positions.

I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.

Caty Weaver wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.


Words in This Story

uproar - n. a situation in which many people are upset, angry or disturbed by something

original - adj. happening or existing first or at the beginning

backlash - n. a strong public reaction against something, often in a way that is opposite to its intended effect

burden - n. someone or something that is very difficult to accept, do or deal with

presume - v. to think something is true without knowing that it is true

exert - v. to cause to have an effect or to be felt

What do you think of these new religious freedom laws? Do the laws in your country permit a business to refuse service to someone based on the business owner’s religion?