Two Failed Efforts to Reign in Religious Exemptions

Last week in Missouri, Democratic legislators held a dramatic 39-hour filibuster in attempt to prevent the passage of Senate Joint Resolution 39, a proposed amendment to the Missouri Constitution. If enacted, it would prevent the government from imposing penalties on certain religious organizations or individuals for “acts in accordance with a sincere religious belief concerning marriage between two persons of the same sex.” In other words, the government would be stymied from protecting LGBT couples from discrimination, and could be forced to award grants, contracts, and tax-exempt status to organizations that refuse to serve LGBT couples.

Despite a marathon effort, the filibuster was broken in a rarely-used procedural move on Wednesday morning, and the Resolution quickly passed. It now moves to the Republican-led House, and then to voters.

Meanwhile, in Idaho, State Representative John Gannon introduced a bill this session that would have eliminated a religious exemption from the state’s child injury law. The exemption, which Gannon has been trying to end since 2014, protects practitioners of faith-healing from prosecution if they fail to provide life-saving medical treatment to a sick or injured child. There has been increased media coverage of the exemption in recent years in response to numerous reports of preventable deaths within the Followers of Christ community in southwestern Idaho. Oregon eliminated its exemption in 2011, and saw a drop in the number of children who died from a lack of medical

Unfortunately Lee Heider, head of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, never scheduled Gannon’s bill for a hearing and last week announced that it was too late. He justified his refusal to support the bill by stating, “I’m a First Amendment guy, and I believe in the First Amendment, which gives people freedom of religion.” Despite the fact that Free Exercise Clause doctrine provides only a limited right to obtain religious accommodations, and no right to use religion to harm others, Heider’s statement demonstrates that legislators can too easily sidestep difficult issues by deferring to overblown notions of Constitutionally-protected religious freedom.

In better news, there was a win in West Virginia on Saturday for those who oppose the use of religion to harm others. Two bills that would have given religious entities a license to discriminate against LGBT people did not pass by the end of the 2016 legislative session. However they are likely to come up again next year.

The failed efforts in Missouri and Idaho give a good snapshot of the multifaceted battle over religious accommodations. While exemptions relating to the culture wars, like the anti-LGBT bill in Missouri, often get the most press, accommodation disputes also crop up in areas from child welfare to zoning to labor unions. And although accommodations sometimes result in high-drama confrontations like Missouri’s overnight filibuster, they are just as likely to be quietly ignored, year after year, as demonstrated by Gannon’s repeatedly-snubbed bill to end protections for faith healers. As the 2016 legislative session continues in many states, we can expect a few additional public flare-ups (in addition to Missouri, keep an eye on Georgia, Virginia, and Tennessee) among the enormous number of proposed accommodations, as well as a few bills to end accommodations that go quietly into the night.