As religious freedom debates recently raged in Indiana and Arkansas—both in the public square and behind the closed doors of lawmakers—the Pennsylvania Pastors Network (PPN, www.papastors.net) is taking a close look at its state’s religious freedom law, which does not protect for-profit companies.
According to a report last week from LancasterOnline.com, Pennsylvania’s 13-year-old law has one major difference from the laws in Indiana and Arkansas—for-profit businesses can’t claim religious liberties violations, and thus, can’t sue the state. Pennsylvania specifically excludes for-profits from protection, instead offering protection to individuals, churches and tax-exempt organizations.
PPN President Sam Rohrer says it’s disappointing that for-profit businesses in Pennsylvania don’t have religious freedom protections under the law.
“Right now, the laws in Indiana and Arkansas protect business owners better than Pennsylvania’s law,” said Rohrer, who is also president of the American Pastors Network (APN, www.AmericanPastorsNetwork.net). “So what has happened to bakers, florists and photographers across the country could also happen here in the Keystone State. When the government demands that Christians go against their faith convictions to provide services that are not in line with their religious beliefs, the government is threatening religious freedom, which is the bulwark not only of our Commonwealth but also of our Republic.”
Controversy erupted soon after Indiana Gov. Mike Pence recently signed his state’s initial Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Afterwards, lawmakers reworded the law while maintaining it was never a license to discriminate. In fact, no LGBT language existed in Indiana’s law. Nevertheless, on Thursday, Gov. Pence signed the revised bill.
On Wednesday, in the wake of similar backlash from businesses and pro-homosexual groups, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson also called for changes to the religious freedom measure that was presented to him. He also signed his state’s revised bill on Thursday.
“As this debate continues, we must not forget that this country was founded upon God-given freedoms, and these freedoms are protected in our Constitution,” Rohrer added. “To realize that government would ask people to forget their faith and endorse actions that are outside their convictions is beyond imagination in a nation built on biblical principles and religious liberty.”
States began passing religious freedom laws of their own after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, signed by President Bill Clinton, did not apply to states. SCOTUS did apply the federal law in the recent Conestoga Wood Specialties landmark case, which upheld the Christian business owners’ claim that the Affordable Care Act’s emergency contraception mandate violated their religious beliefs.
Randall Wenger, chief counsel for the Independence Law Center, based in Harrisburg, Pa., and a member of the legal team that represented Conestoga Wood in its appeal, told LancasterOnline that religious freedom restoration laws stand “for the unremarkable proposition that our laws are subject to our fundamental rights, including our right of conscience. A lot of folks on the left and right realized if there isn’t an ability to protect our most deeply held convictions, we’ve got a lot of problems coming down the road. It’s not for one demographic. It’s for everyone. That’s why (the federal law) passed with wide bipartisan support and a Democratic president signed it.”
Pennsylvania’s law gives individuals the right to stop the state from substantially burdening their free exercise of religion “without compelling justification.”