Breaking Down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

by Ryan Johnson

(Note: SocialWorkSynergy offers this edited version of the original posted March 31, 2015 on Ryan’s shared blog, Dishwashers in the Revolution. An update on the revised law may be found below.)   ___________________________________________________________________________________

Not sure how many of you keep up with the latest political news, but I wanted to take this opportunity to weigh in on the recent happenings in Indiana.



Today as I was scrolling through Twitter, I came across this tweet from the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo:

3 twitter messages from NYS Gov. Andrew Cuomo

“Today I banned non-essential state travel to Indiana.” Mar 31, 2015 @NYGovCuomo

Naturally, I was intrigued about why New York would be banning non-essential state travel to Indiana, and so I did a little digging. Here’s a headline from the New York Times dated March 27, 2015:

“Indiana Law Denounced as Invitation to Discriminate Against Gays”

Indiana passed a law on March 27, 2015 called the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA) and it has caused an uproar throughout the country. Influential people ranging from Hillary Clinton to Miley Cyrus denounced the passing of this law and have labeled it as a law that opens the door for discrimination against the LGBT community. Not only have individuals spoken out against the law, but states have banned official state travel to Indiana, and entire companies have vowed to stop doing business in Indiana because of this new law.

Picture of giant wave with boat labled "RFRA" and figure of man, Governor Pence, clinging to back of boat

by Gary Varvel IndyStar April 3, 2015

I thought, “What the heck is in this law that people are so upset about?”

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of Indiana

A short summary that I gleaned from the media’s coverage of this law is that it allows for individuals to exercise their religion by choosing to act or refusing to act on religious grounds. If their action (or inaction) is challenged in court as discriminatory, they can utilize this law as a defense for what they chose to do (or not do). The exception: if someone does something that is life-threatening, the government has just cause to put an end to it.

Everyone has said: look, it opens up the opportunity for discrimination against the LGBT community! While I am a strong supporter of the LGBT community, I was skeptical about whether or not the law was really about that at all. I dug up the actual legislation, and here’s what it says:

“Sec. 3. (a) As used in this chapter, “exercise of religion” means the practice or observance of religion. (b) The term includes a person’s ability to: (1) act; or (2) refuse to act; in a manner that is substantially motivated by the person’s sincerely held religious belief, regardless of whether the religious belief is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.”

One should note, that the RFRA defines a “person” as both an individual, private citizen, as well as a company, organization, or corporation. This is controversial because, well, companies and organizations are not private citizens.

After reading that I thought to myself, “Wow, that really might have real implications on the way a company acts in ways that may be discriminatory to individuals or communities like LGBT folks.” Did the Indiana state government pass a law so that religious folks could deny services to the LGBT community, or is this just a precautionary uprising of protest because of the remote possibility that this might happen?

Why Some Defend RFRA

I did some more investigating to see what the “positives” of a law like this might be, and here’s what I found from a “news” site called “The Daily Signal”:

“No one has the right to have the government force a particular minister to marry them, or a certain photographer to capture the first kiss or a baker to bake the wedding cake. Declining to perform these services doesn’t violate anyone’s sexual freedoms. Some citizens may conclude that they cannot in good conscience participate in a same-sex ceremony, from priests and pastors to bakers and florists. The government should not force them to choose between their religious beliefs and their livelihood.”

(taken from “Indiana Protects Religious Liberty. Why That’s Good Policy.” The Daily Signal, March 30, 2015, found here:

The article links to another site, The Heritage Foundation, which outlines dozens of cases in which religious individuals refused to serve people in the LGBT community, based on the fact that they were religiously opposed to their way of life. It essentially highlights a number of cases in which people who offer public services, such as bakers and florists, refused to sell their goods to individuals who desired to purchase their goods because those individuals were gay.

Here is the link for your own exploration:


Why Some Refute RFRA

Some might say: “why should anyone be coerced into selling someone their goods or services if they choose not to?” And they might have a point. BUT – when you own a public business and your reasons for denying someone a service is because you refuse to work with or for someone based on their sexual orientation or race – that’s called discrimination, and there are laws the prohibit discriminatory practices in business.

60 years ago, businesses used to refuse to serve black people based solely on the color of their skin – not on their ability to pay for the services or their integrity or for any other reason – and it took a political uproar from an entire population to get laws passed to make sure that businesses didn’t discriminate against serving people based on the color of their skin. This issue is no different. If a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person walks into your store and is interested in purchasing something from you, you cannot deny that to them based on the fact that you don’t agree with their lifestyle.


After investigating the issues on my own, I determined for myself that I agree with the uproar. Laws passed that create opportunities for individuals or companies to lawfully discriminate against an individual based on their sexual orientation or race or religion are wrong and should be changed. Indiana is not the only state to have passed this law – in fact they were the 20th state to pass it – and just today, March 31st, 2015, Arkansas passed its own version of the same law and with the same title – but with the difference that these other states’ laws reflect the federal law, which does not treat a public entity as a private citizen and therefore does not make room for discrimination in this same way.

I’m proud to say that my state, New York, has chosen to stand by the LGBT community and to take a stance against discriminatory practices. I can only hope that our fellow states who believe this law opens the door for legal discrimination will put pressure on Indiana and the other states who have passed this law to amend its language to protect the LGBT community and others that might be discriminated against as a result of this legislation.

[Update: This week, on April 16th, UB School of Social Work Dean Nancy Smyth will be in Indiana to debate and affirm the question, “Should clinical practice be taught online?” at the conference on Social Work and Distance Education. The ban on travel by NYS employees to Indiana mentioned above was lifted once the revised Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed – find the text of the revision here – and made sexual orientation and gender identity explicitly protected classes against discrimination under the new law.]

Comments? Ryan would like to hear from you – please reply here!

Ryan Johnson:
“I am a part-time online student currently living in Albany, NY. I was born and raised in Syracuse, and just moved here in August. I am a macro-focused student and since moving to Albany have spent much of my time advocating on behalf of kinship care in the legislature as part of my internship.

I currently work part time for the Center for Human Services Research at the School of Social Welfare at SUNY Albany as a project coordinator for an evaluation project dealing in kinship care. I also work part time at St. Catherine’s Center for Children as a waiver service provider in the Bridges to Health program with foster children who have severe emotional disturbances.

What I plan to do post-graduation is to be involved in policy and advocacy in child welfare. I’d like to be influential in the child welfare system in New York State through advocating for comprehensive, evidence-based services that serve the population in the best ways possible. I hope to use my connections in research and evaluation with my knowledge of providing services on the front lines to formulate regulations for services that work effectively.”

Ryan Johnson and Romano  photo: Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson and Romano
photo: Ryan Johnson



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