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Religious freedom proposal stirs parties in state

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A proposed amendment to the state constitution would prohibit the government from burdening an individual’s religious freedom, but opponents of the effort say Arkansas’ religious freedom amendment is a potential Pandora’s box .

Number 3 will be presented to voters in the November 8 general election. Early voting begins Monday.

Proposed by Republican state Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, the amendment would add language to the Arkansas Constitution that would prohibit the government from burdening a person’s freedom of religion unless the government can demonstrate that it serves a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means. to foster this interest.

The amendment also adds language to the state constitution that provides for legal action in court or other governmental proceedings for a person to seek redress against the government for imposing on the individual’s religious freedom. .

State senators and representatives voted in 2021 to place number 3 on the 2022 general election ballot. The state constitution allows the legislature to include up to three constitutional amendments on the ballot general elections.

Supporters say the measure was inspired by the government’s efforts to limit religious gatherings in 2021 due to the covid-19 pandemic and fears that a new executive branch could infringe on people’s religious freedoms.

Jerry Cox, executive director of the Family Council’s Conservative Action Committee, said Number 3 is needed to prevent “further erosion” of religious freedom, but acknowledged such efforts are not much of a threat currently in Arkansas.

“It’s very simple,” Cox said. “He protects everyone’s freedom of religion equally.”

Lawmakers who voted against the measure in committee said the proposed constitutional amendment is either redundant with current state law or weakens existing protections and would not hold up in the event of a challenge under the first amendment.

Holly Dickson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, said Number 3 is another attempt to elevate religious liberty above all other basic rights and civil liberties.

“It’s completely out of balance with the balance [of] our basic rights as Arkansans and Americans,” she said. “They change the standard under the law. Established state and federal laws stipulate that there are restrictive actions on the substantial burden of religious exercise. Under this proposed amendment, any religious liberty burden is suspect, no matter how small.”

[ISSUE 3: Read the ballot title for proposed constitutional amendment » arkansasonline.com/1023issue3/]

Dickson said that if passed, the proposed amendment would tip the balance to allow religious freedom to trump all other laws.

“It would give a new argument for exemption from any laws or regulations that we have: domestic violence laws, child abuse laws, professional licenses, fire codes, consumer protection and assignment requirements. work,” she said. “There are so many cases where, in each case, the Arkansans would have a new argument as to why we don’t have to comply with the laws vis-à-vis the government.”

The state passed the Arkansas Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015. It states that any governmental action that constitutes a substantial burden on the free exercise of an individual’s religion cannot be upheld unless it serves a compelling governmental interest of the least restrictive way possible. Twenty-one states have a similar law.

Dickson said the 2015 law says anything additional upsets the balance of rights that Americans have come to know and experience. She mentioned same-sex marriage and interracial marriage as issues that could be attacked under the proposed amendment.

“There is a fear that it could drift into these areas,” she said. “In fact, I think that’s largely the intent behind this proposal. It’s a feature, not a bug.”

Cox said one of the reasons for the proposed amendment is that religious freedom is under attack around the world. He cited a 2018 Pew Research study that showed religious persecution and harassment is on the rise, including in the United States.

“The Pew Research study also found that the most harassed and persecuted religion in the world is Christianity, followed closely by the Muslim faith,” he said. “So it’s important for people to understand that this amendment protects everyone’s freedom of religion equally in the state of Arkansas.”

Cox also said he guaranteed the right to religious freedom for future generations.

“Freedom of religion and the right to bear arms and all the other rights enshrined in our Constitution, they just weren’t doing it for them and now. They were doing it for generations to come because they had the foresight to do it,” he said. “We benefit from that. That’s what we want to preserve here.”

Cox said the proposed amendment would also put Arkansas’ position on religious freedom in writing.

“Arkansas has no specific protections for religious freedom in our constitution,” he said. “We learned that through the recent abortion case, through the Dobbs decision, that what’s in state law really matters. You can’t always rely on federal law to say what the people’s rights.”

“So Arkansas has very clear protections for unborn children in our constitution, where it says we will protect the rights of every unborn child, but we don’t really have any such amendment with the religious freedom. So it is prudent for us to say what we know to be true in our constitution by making it clear that the government cannot compel anyone to exercise their religion freely in the state of Arkansas.”

Cox said Number 3 is inspired by an amendment to the Alabama constitution that was passed in 1998.

Dickson said the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the Alabama law and found it could potentially open the floodgates for litigation.

“Any religious freedom burden, incidental or insubstantial, would be enough to challenge the laws,” she said.

Dickson said people would understand how problematic the proposed amendment is if they realized it applies to all religious practices, not just Christianity.

“Whatever an individual believes and how they practice and worship, however vehemently you disagree with it, the amendment will apply here,” she said. .

Cox said the amendment was not intended to allow people to break the law under the guise of religious freedom.

“It won’t allow them to because it says the government can interfere with your free exercise if they have a compelling reason to do so,” he said.

Cox said voters should vote for Number 3 because it protects the right to live their lives according to their faith as long as they don’t hurt anyone else.

“I maintain that the freedom to live your life according to your faith and what you believe is at the heart of what it means to be an American,” he said. “If we lack the freedom to be able to live our faith and live our hearts and what we sincerely believe…we really have very little freedom from this point because most of our freedoms flow from that.”

Dickson said people should vote down number 3 because it’s a license for anarchy.

“We want the people of Arkansas to know that this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she said.