WA lawmakers hold work session on protecting religious beliefs

Staff writerSeptember 11, 2013 

Washington lawmakers are considering ways to limit how state government can force citizens to act against their religious beliefs.

State Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, asked a state Senate panel to review draft legislation that would prevent the state from impeding citizens’ “ability to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by one’s seriously held religious belief.”

Padden’s proposed legislation follows a 2013 case in which the state Attorney General sued a Richland florist for refusing to provide flowers for a gay couple’s wedding. The florist cited her Christian faith as her reason for refusing to serve the couple.

But Padden said the motivation for his proposed law, which he’s dubbing “the first freedom preservation act,” doesn’t come from the florist case. He said he wants to address situations like one that occurred in 2011, when a state agency blocked an Olympia church's request to hold a baptism at a park on the Capitol Campus.

“It’s much, much more broad,” Padden said Wednesday. “The idea is to codify what our current state court decisions have been… and to protect people of every religious faith.”

The Senate Law & Justice Committee, which Padden chairs, held a work session Wednesday on a draft version of the bill, which has not been formally introduced.

Padden’s proposal would prevent the government from burdening a person’s exercise of religion, unless there is “a compelling governmental interest.” It says people who feel their religious rights have been violated can sue the government, and possibly receive a court injunction, damages and attorney fees if a judge rules in their favor.

Two Democratic lawmakers on the Senate panel expressed concern that the bill would limit the state’s ability to intervene in cases of racial discrimination or other examples of prejudicial treatment.

“If this goes into law, what would be the real standard for being able to prevent discrimination based on protected classes?” asked Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle. “That really worries me.”

Steve McFarland, the chief legal officer for the Christian charity World Vision, testified in support of Padden’s proposed legislation, saying “it will give pause to bureaucratic overreaching.”

“It gives the government a requirement that they think twice and justify why they can’t give a single individual a religious exemption,” McFarland said.

Padden’s prospective bill still needs to be submitted to the state code reviser’s office before becoming a formal piece of legislation. After that, the bill would need to be approved by several legislative committees and the state House and state Senate before it could become law.

State Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, said the proposed bill recalls a 2007 suit filed by two pharmacists and a grocery store pharmacy owner over a state mandate that they sell emergency contraception, also known as the morning-after pill. The owner of Ralph's Thriftway in Olympia is one of the plaintiffs in the case, which is still ongoing.

A U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of Ralph's Thriftway and the pharmacists in 2012; the state is appealing the ruling before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Kline said lawmakers need to consider not only people’s right to express their religion, but also other citizens' right to access services such as contraception.

“This bill it seems to me would have the one trump the other,” Kline said Wednesday.

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