Rhode Island has a religious freedom law that bears some similarity to an Indiana proposal, that is now raising controversy around the country. Rhode Island’s law drew little criticism when it passed more than 20 years ago.
Rhode Island ACLU director Steve Brown said Rhode Island’s religious freedom law was passed with broad support in the early 1990s. Brown said the law was a response to a US Supreme Court decision denying the right of Native Americans to use peyote in religious ceremonies.
“The purpose of the religious freedom restoration act in Rhode Island and elsewhere and in Congress which also passed a law at that time was to try to restore that standard and provide some religious freedom to individuals under state and federal laws,” said Brown.
Brown said the Rhode Island law attracted broad support in the early 1990s. That was due in part to an incident involving how an autopsy was performed on a Hmong child, over the wishes of the child’s family.
“I think that prompted a lot of people in Rhode Island to recognize there was a need to try to address this issue in order to prevent tragedies like that from occurring in the future,” said Brown.
Indiana’s proposed law on religious freedom caused an uproar because critics say it could allow businesses to discriminate against gay and lesbians. Brown said the situation for Rhode Island is different, in part because the state provides separate legal protections for gays and lesbians.
Congressman David Cicilline is among a group of lawmakers backing a bill meant to end discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.
Cicilline, one of six openly gay members of Congress, said the persistence of discrimination underscores the need for a more sweeping federal approach.
“What we need to be sure that everywhere in the country, individuals are protected from discrimination based on who they, based on their sexual orientation, and that’s the purpose of the bill.”
Cicilline said he’s working on the bill with Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, and expects the legislation to emerge in May.
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