The association of Tennessee cities is raising alarms about the potential impact of one of the conservative Christian movement’s signature victories in the last state legislative session: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The new law, which the legislature adopted by wide margins, makes it easier to win court challenges against state statutes and local ordinances on grounds that they interfere with religious beliefs, according to the Tennessee Municipal League.
One example: A ruling in July that struck down a Euless, Texas, ordinance that banned the sacrifice of animals within city limits.
"Tennessee state and local governments will now face an uphill battle in upholding laws of general applicability when someone claiming religious offense cries foul," according to an article in the Tennessee Municipal League’s official newspaper.
The article was written by Josh Jones, a legal consultant for the University of Tennessee's Municipal Technical Advisory Service.
Responding to a nationwide campaign by conservative Christians, Tennessee joined 15 other states in passing such laws in the name of protecting religious freedoms. Jones cites cases in other states where the law has resulted in unintended consequences.
Also in Texas, he says, a zoning ordinance barred a halfway house for convicts from locating in a neighborhood, but a judge invalidated the law because a preacher was running the facility.
"If the ability of local governments to regulate dissipates at even the most tenuous claim of religious offense, small sects will be able to hamper rational, safe and publicly beneficial policy,” Jones writes.
Family Action of Tennessee, a James Dobson-affiliated organization, lobbied for passage of the law. Its president, David Fowler, dismisses this criticism of the measure, saying courts can tell when a religious belief is sincere.
“There’s a point at which we have to trust our judges and juries,” Fowler says. “They can decide whether or not there is a better way for the government to achieve its interests without trampling on a person’s religious convictions.”
“Also,” he says of the new law’s critics, “they forget that this is a statute, and any judicial rulings that the legislature thinks go too far can be corrected by a vote of the majority of our legislature. So it’s not by any means a sky-is-falling type proposition that they’d like to lead people to believe.”
The Tennessee Municipal League is considering whether to try to repeal or modify the law in the next legislative session.