Many Arkansas voters who strongly support religious freedom are opposing Ballot Issue 3, the Arkansas Religious Freedom Amendment, for an invalid reason. Social media frenzy and distrust of government is causing a paranoia among some Christian voters that could stop a state constitutional amendment benefiting religious freedom. Let’s look at this issue more closely.
In 2015, the Arkansas legislature passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Act 975. This Act mirrors federal law and the laws of many other states protecting religious freedoms. It simply endorsed religious freedom specifically for Arkansas. It states that government cannot substantially burden a person’s religious liberty unless it is necessary to further a compelling governmental interest and the government uses the least restrictive means possible to further its compelling interest. That is on the books now, but the legislature and courts can always remove it rather easily in the future. That is why it needs to be ensconced in the Arkansas Constitution.
Issue 3 in this election, the Arkansas Religious Freedom Amendment, is virtually the same wording as the existing Arkansas statute. It was drafted by two of the most conservative Christian members of the Arkansas legislature and passed as a recommended amendment by a large majority of the House and Senate. The objective was to strengthen and protect religious freedom as well as make it very difficult and unlikely for the government to intervene in religious matters.
The hang-up for some voters is the exception for government to intervene. This exception is absolutely necessary. Something like it is included in every religious liberty act and amendment in the country, and rightly so. Otherwise, the government would not be allowed to act against cults, fanatics, and even terrorists who claim to be acting according to their religion. What if someone proclaimed spouse beating was a religious right. What if a group decided it was against their religion to pay any taxes? What if an entire religious sect said their beliefs do not allow pictures of themselves under any circumstances? Wouldn’t we want the government to take these “religious freedom” claimants to court or deny them other freedoms as a result of their claims? That is why the exception clause is necessary but extremely restricted by the phrases “compelling interest” and “least restrictive means possible.”
Organizations that are supportive (or FOR) Issue 3 include Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, and Alliance Defending Freedom. Organizations that are opposed (or AGAINST) Issue 3 include ACLU of Arkansas, The Arkansas Public Policy Panel, and The Freedom From Religion Foundation.
My concern is that we could lose a highly advantageous opportunity to advance religious liberty in Arkansas over the misinterpretation of a sentence that will always, by necessity, be a part of any religious freedom statute or amendment. Even if one remains convinced the exception clause in this proposed amendment is a red herring that negates its intent, the amendment’s defeat would just take us back to the existing statute that says the same thing but is more vulnerable to government interference.
Let’s not cut off our nose to spite our face. Vote “FOR” Issue 3.