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Religious Freedom Acts by State

Religious freedom laws are meant to hold the government responsible for protecting the free exercise of religion in the United States. Grounded in the First Amendment, religious freedom laws essentially carve out an exemption for religious objectors from general legal requirements, unless the government can carry an especially heavy burden to show that the objectors should be required to comply with the law.

If a person's religious exercise is "substantially burdened," the government must excuse the person from complying with the law unless the government can show that it has:

  • A "compelling interest" and
  • That there is not a less restrictive alternative that would carry out its interest with less of a burden on religious exercise.

Where Do Religious Freedom Laws Come From?

Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) after the U.S. Supreme Court in Employment Division v. Smith had reduced the First Amendment's protection for the free exercise of religion. The federal RFRA law was designed to protect infringements by the government on individuals, particularly in relation to Native Americans who were being fired for smoking peyote, which was encouraged by the Native American Church.

President Bill Clinton signed RFRA into law in 1993. Four years later, however, the Supreme Court held that RFRA's protections apply only to the federal government, not to actions by state governments. Since then, many state governments have passed their own religious freedom laws to replicate the types of protections provided by the federal RFRA.

States began passing their own religious freedom laws in 1993, barring state governments from substantially burdening an individual or religious group's free exercise of religion. Most of the states that have passed RFRAs also have laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

RFRA and Hobby Lobby

In 2014, the Supreme Court made it clear in its Hobby Lobby decision that closely held corporations can assert free exercise rights under the federal RFRA. While RFRA only applies to burdens imposed by the government, currently both Indiana and Arkansas laws allow RFRA to be raised in lawsuits where the government is not a party.

Controversy Over RFRA Laws

Supporters and opponents of state RFRA laws disagree on their impact. While some see it as a protection for religious freedoms, others fear it could lead to state-sanctioned discrimination, particularly against the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.

For example, in 2015 lawmakers in the states of Indiana and Arkansas faced a firestorm of criticism when each state passed its own versions of so-called "Religious Freedom Restoration Acts." Govenors in both states quickly amended the laws after a public outcry from business leaders, politicians, sports stars and celebrities, amongst others.

Opponents of the original laws believed that the language contained in the acts could offer a legal defense to businesses with religious objections to same-sex marriage - for example, caterers, florists or photographers that refused to offer services to same-sex couples. The controversy has gripped the U.S. political debate as the number of states that allow same-sex marriage has steadily increased. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this summer in a case that could make gay marriage legal across the nation.

State Statutes and RFRA-Like Provisions

In addition to the federal government, 20 other states have some version of a RFRA law, and another group of states interpret their state constitutions to provide similar, RFRA-like protections.

The following information provides the basics of religious freedom laws by state. Visit Findlaw's Religious Discrimination section to learn more.

Religious Freedom Laws By State

State

State RFRA Law

RFRA-Like Provisions Through State Court Decisions

No Law

Statute

Alabama (1998)

X

   

Ala. Const. Art. I, §3.01

Alaska

 

X

 

N/A

Arizona (1999)

X

   

Ariz. Rev. Stat. §41-1493.01

Arkansas

(Pending)

   

(Pending)

California

   

X

N/A

Colorado

   

X

N/A

Connecticut (1993)

X

   

Conn. Gen. Stat. §52-571b

Delaware

   

X

N/A

District of Columbia

   

X

N/A

Florida (1998)

X

   

Fla. Stat. §761.01, et seq.

Georgia

(Pending)

    (Pending)

Hawaii

(Pending)

    (Pending)

Idaho (2000)

X

   

Idaho Code §73-402

Illinois (1998)

X

   

Ill. Rev. Stat. Ch. 775, §35/1, et seq.

Indiana (2015)

(Pending)

   

2015 SB 101, enacted March 26, 2015

Iowa

 

 

X

N/A

Kansas (2013)

X

 

 

Kan. Stat. §60-5301, et seq.

Kentucky (2013)

X

 

 

Ky. Rev. Stat. §446.350

Louisiana (2010)

X

   

La. Rev. Stat. §13:5231, et seq.

Maine

 

X

 

N/A

Maryland

 

 

X

N/A

Massachusetts

 

X

 

N/A

Michigan

(Pending)

 

  (Pending)

Minnesota

(Pending)

X

 

(Pending)

Mississippi (2014)

X

 

 

Miss. Code §11-61-1

Missouri (2003)

X

 

 

Mo. Rev. Stat. §1.302

Montana

 

X

 

N/A

Nebraska

 

 

X

N/A

Nevada

(Pending)

 

  Pending

New Hampshire

 

 

X

N/A

New Jersey

 

 

X

N/A

New Mexico (2000)

X

 

 

N.M. Stat. §28-22-1, et seq.

New York State

 

 

X

N/A

North Carolina

(Pending)

    (Pending)

North Dakota

   

X

N/A

Ohio

 

X

 

N/A

Oklahoma (2000)

X

   

Okla. Stat. tit. 51, §251, et seq.

Oregon

   

X

N/A

Pennsylvania (2002)

X

   

Pa. Stat. tit. 71, §2403

Rhode Island (1993)

X

 

 

R.I. Gen. Laws §42-80.1-1

South Carolina (1999)

X

 

 

S.C. Code §1-32-10, et seq.

South Dakota

 

 

X

N/A

Tennessee (2009)

X

 

 

Tenn. Code §4-1-407

Texas (1999)

X

   

Tex. Civ. Prac. & Remedies Code §110.003

Utah

X (Utah Religious Land Use Act)

   

Utah Code Ann. § 63L-5-101 to -403

Vermont

   

X

N/A

Virginia (2007)

X

 

 

Va. Code §57-1

Washington

 

X

 

N/A

West Virginia

 

 

X

N/A

Wisconsin

 

X

 

N/A

Wyoming

 

 

X

N/A

Getting a Lawyer's Help

While we work hard to keep our articles up to date, state laws are constantly changing. If you have questions about religious freedom laws in your state, you should consult with a civil rights lawyer or constitutional law lawyer to learn more.

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