Proposed law could change the way courts handle religious freedom

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - A new law proposed in the Ohio state House could change the way courts handle your religious freedoms.

The proposed Ohio Religious Freedom Restoration Act aims to make sure citizens are able to freely express their religion.  This legislation resembles a federal law passed in 1993 restoring a requirement for courts to use "strict scrutiny" in cases about religious freedoms.

In our commitment to balanced news, supporters of the measure say this bill would help people exercising their First Amendment rights when their religious freedoms become challenged.

But, on the flip side, opponents say legislation like this is "unnecessary" and a "bad policy" adding this bill would allow anyone to claim a burden, and not always for religious conduct, but also for any action motivated by religious beliefs.

This is a statement issued to FOX19 from Patrick Elliott, a staff attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation:

The bill is both unnecessary and bad policy.

The Ohio Constitution, Sec. 1.07, already protects from "any interference with the rights of conscience." The bill is also an abysmal failure if it is intended to entangle religion and public schools. Legislators cannot carve out exceptions to the U.S. Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land.

The bill would broadly allow anyone to claim a "burden," not just substantial burdens and not just for religious conduct but also for any action that is "substantially motivated" by religious beliefs. Religion could be used as a justification for discrimination in places of public accommodation, housing, and employment. This broad exemption from generally applicable laws is dangerous and could be far-reaching.

The First Amendment protects things like freedom of speech, the right to peacefully assemble and freedom of religion.  That's why Rep. Timothy Derickson (R-Oxford) helped created Ohio House Bill 376.

"We're such a melting pot in this country, let alone my own neighbors.  We all have very diverse views.  What this bill will do is protect those views," said Derickson.

Derickson says this law would protect people in situations like putting up a Christmas nativity scene, or wearing a necklace with a cross, or even saying a prayer while in school.

"The court would need to prove a compelling government interest, and take the least restrictive means possible when burdening an individual's religious rights," Derickson told FOX19.

But, the idea of the bill continues the divide over the freedom of religion issue with at least one group.

"It would be really dangerous, and have a wide, or very broad impact in terms of giving people who violate the law specifically, a potential exemption because of their religious beliefs," Patrick Elliott told FOX19 over the phone.  Elliott is a staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

But, Derickson points to his oath of office as motivation for trying to get this law on the books.

"It shall be the duty of the General Assembly to pass suitable laws that protect every religious denomination.  And, I see this as my duty," said Derickson.

Derickson, a Republican, introduced the bill with Democrat, Rep. Bill Patmon from Cleveland.  So far, the bill has more than three dozen co-sponsors, and will now head to a committee for review.

Derickson says there are already 18 other states that have implemented Religious Freedom Restoration Acts.