Here’s some background on the religious objections laws that many states have passed, most of them based on a federal law that took effect in 1993:

Q: What was the purpose of the 1993 federal law?

A: The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act arose from a case related to the use of peyote in a Native American ritual. It has since been used by other individuals who claimed the government was infringing on their religious rights, such as a Sikh woman who was fired by the IRS for wearing a 3-inch ceremonial dagger to work. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal law did not apply to the states, so states began enacting their own laws. Twenty now have them on the books.

Q: What’s changed in recent years?

A: In the past two years, numerous judges across the country have struck down state bans on same-sex marriage, which is now legal in 37 states. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments April 28 in a case over the constitutionality of such bans that could legalize gay marriage nationwide. The push for religious freedom laws has been spurred by those developments and by the Supreme Court’s ruling last year that Hobby Lobby and certain other private businesses with religious objections could opt out of providing the free contraceptive coverage required by the Affordable Care Act.

In another key case, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that a photography studio violated the state’s Human Rights Act by refusing to photograph a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony. The court rejected the studio’s effort to invoke the state’s religious freedom act, holding that the law applied only to lawsuits against a government agency, not to disputes between private parties. Partly in response to that case, conservative lawmakers in several states proposed religious-protection legislation aimed at shielding people from private discrimination lawsuits if they felt that doing business with same-sex couples violated their religious beliefs.


Q: What do the new state laws say?

A: The Indiana and Arkansas measures do not specifically mention gays and lesbians, though they had strong backing from lawmakers and conservative activists who have opposed same-sex marriage and were unhappy with its spread. The measures say that state laws and regulations cannot infringe on a person’s religious practice unless the government can show that it has a compelling interest in doing so.

Q: How are Indiana and Arkansas revising their laws?

A: In response to widespread criticism, Indiana lawmakers have drafted an amendment prohibiting service providers from using the law as a legal defense for refusing to provide goods, services, facilities or accommodations. It also bars discrimination based on race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or U.S. military service. The law would still offer protections to churches or other nonprofit religious organizations. The conservative Family Research Council, a strong supporter of the original measure, denounced the proposed changes, saying they would “gut religious freedom in Indiana.”

The revised Arkansas measure only addresses actions by the government, not by businesses or individuals; supporters said that would prevent businesses from using it to deny services to individuals.

Q: What’s the situation in other states?

A: Religious freedom bills were introduced in more than a dozen states this year, including Maine. Some measures have died already. A divisive bill in Georgia stalled Thursday as the end of the 2015 session approached.

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