A constitutional amendment to protect religious liberty in Wisconsin could allow religious beliefs to trump civil rights protections, according to one secular advocacy group.
"Supporters of this constitutional amendment claim that it only is restating current judicial opinions," Patrick Elliott of the Freedom From Religion Foundation told the Wisconsin Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor this week. "This is not true. The wording in the amendment is expansive. It turns a shield into a sword. A protection is now something that can be wielded against others."
State Rep. David Craig (R-Town of Vernon) and state Sen. Joe Leibham (R-Sheboygan) introduced the Religious Freedom Amendment earlier this year. The proposed amendment would incorporate the Wisconsin Supreme Court's compelling state interest test established in State v. Miller into the state constitution, according to Craig.
Julaine Appling, the head of the group Wisconsin Family Action, told the Wisconsin Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor the amendment would "lessen the likelihood that the state through a court or even legislative action can compel a person to act — or, as important, not act, in a way or in ways that violate his religious beliefs or conscience." She denied the amendment would create "any new or additional rights for any religious activity."
Elliott, however, argued the wording of the amendment could allow for religious beliefs to undermine anti-discrimination laws. State employees could refuse to marry couples if such a marriage would conflict with their religion, FFRF said.
"The wording is so broad that any state enforcement, state statutes, and local ordinances would be impacted," Elliott told the lawmakers. "Protections from discrimination in places of public accommodation, housing, and employment could be gutted. The expanse of the provision would reach Wisconsin schools, correctional institutions, and law enforcement, including prosecution for possession of illegal drugs."
[Angry man with a Bible on Shutterstock]