By DAVID B. RIVKIN JR. And ELIZABETH PRICE FOLEY, April 9, 2015 6:53 p.m. ET
Debates about the Indiana and Arkansas Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, or RFRAs, have regrettably pitted religious freedom against gay rights. Critics claim the laws provide a license to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) individuals. But this criticism shouldn’t be aimed at the religious-freedom laws, which don’t license discrimination based on sexual orientation or anything else.
Those wanting to advance LGBT rights should focus on enacting laws that bar discrimination. If there is a legal “license” to discriminate based on sexual orientation, it is because few jurisdictions today provide protection against such discrimination, or because the Constitution may immunize such behavior in certain circumstances.
There is no federal law prohibiting private discrimination based on sexual orientation. An executive order by President Obama in 2014 bans such discrimination only for federal workers and contractors. About 20 states and some municipalities prohibit sexual-orientation discrimination in workplaces and public accommodations. But the majority of states still don’t proscribe discrimination based on sexual orientation, though discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity or national origin is banned.
The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities and signed by President Clinton in 1993. It represented a backlash against the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith. That decision held that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause doesn’t allow a religious exemption from laws of general applicability—e.g., compulsory military service, or prohibitions on drug use or animal cruelty—even if those laws substantially burden religious exercise.