The concept of the separation of church and state is a common refrain many Americans associate with the U.S. Constitution. The government is prohibited from establishing or oppressing people based on their religious affiliation. At face value this is a relatively simple concept. Unfortunately, once a concept turns into legislation, law and court opinions, the simplicity is barely visible after each of the interpretations. Recently the state of Indiana has come under fire for passing a controversial piece of legislation regarding freedom of religion. The outcry against Indiana and Governor Mike Pence revolves around whether religion can be used as a reason for a business to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Pennsylvania, too, has a religious freedom law that has gone relatively un-discussed over the years.
Thirteen years ago the Pennsylvania state legislature voted to pass a statewide law regarding freedom of religion. More formally, the legislation was known as The Religious Freedom Protection Act of December 9, 2002 (RFPA). By 2002 the stage was set for states in the U.S to begin passing their own acts regarding religion, thanks to a Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruling. The opinion of the court was that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 didn’t apply to the individual states. The Supreme Court was attempting to decide whether the federal legislation would force Texas to allow a churchs expansion in spite of a local zoning ordinance. SCOTUS decided this was an invasion of Congress power.
Pennsylvanias religious freedom law gives rights to individuals to stop the state from oppressing their free exercise of religion. This does not mean that the state is flatly excluded from doing anything at all that interferes with a religious belief. The state is permitted to interfere with religious practice but only when the state has compelling justification. There are three steps to proving illegal interference with the exercise of religion by government action. First, the individual must show that the government action places a substantial burden on their free exercise. The state must then be without a compelling justification, or public benefit, for placing such a burden on the individual. Finally, the state has to prove that the law is the least restrictive way of achieving the laws benefit.
Pennsylvania’s religious freedom law escaped the controversy following Indianas for a fairly simple reason: Pennsylvania law does not allow companies who work for a profit to claim their rights have been violated under the act. This also means that a for-profit company cannot sue the state under the RFPA. Pennsylvanias law offers protection to individual people, churches, and other tax exempt and non-profit organizations. The law in Pennsylvania differs drastically from the federal governments legislation in this respect. Just as in Indiana, the federal government can be sued for a violation of a for-profit company’s religious beliefs. In fact, this was the focal point of a case before the SCOTUS just last year, Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Burwell.
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