South Dakota passes “religious freedom” bill that could legalize discrimination

Gov. Kristi Noem

Gov. Kristi NoemPhoto: Matt AJ/via Wikipedia

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) announced on March 10 that she signed S.B. 124 into law, which seeks to “provide protections for the exercise of religious freedom,” she stated.

The law is similar to other “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” laws, such as the one adopted in Indiana and signed by then-Gov. Mike Pence in 2015, before it was eventually revised. Its broad implications could allow for anti-LGBTQ discrimination, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) warn.

Related: White House warns states that their anti-transgender bills are illegal

S.B. 124 was introduced in January by state Sen. Lee Schoenbeck (R). It adds a general provision to the state constitution calling for the state and its employees to not “substantially burden” anyone’s religious exercise or behavior.

“This bill represents a dangerous attempt to enshrine discrimination into state law by creating a legal mechanism to privilege some religious beliefs over the well being of all South Dakotans,” a letter written by HRC’s Sarah Warbelow to the state senate read. The national organization denounced the bill as “a broad sweeping religious refusal bill” and counts it towards the dozens of anti-LGBTQ bills from state legislatures this year.

Schoenbeck said in reaction to the Human Rights Campaign’s objections, “I find it offensive when people play the LBGTQ-whatever card, or race card, or any of that kind of garbage, instead of dealing with the merits.”

His bill passed nearly unanimously through the Republican-controlled state legislature, with only three votes against the bill coming from the House, where there are only three Democrats in the chamber.

“Religious liberty is important; that’s why it’s already protected in the Constitution, but it shouldn’t be used to discriminate. We’re deeply disappointed to see this bill signed into law and are concerned that it will be used to justify harm to already vulnerable communities,” said Janna Fairley, communications director for the ACLU of South Dakota, to the Advocate.

Gov. Noem is also expected to sign into law H.B. 1217, which bans transgender girls and women from participating in sports in school or college within the state.

“In South Dakota, we’re celebrating #InternationalWomensDay by defending women’s sports!” she tweeted the day it passed earlier this week. “I’m excited to sign this bill very soon.”

Several states have passed or considered religious freedom legislation over the last few years, most notably Indiana in 2015. This is the first to pass since Mississippi in 2016.

The Indiana law signed and championed by the state’s then-Gov. Mike Pence also prevented anything in the state that would “substantially burden” a person’s ability to follow their religious beliefs. The definition of “person” included religious institutions, businesses and associations.

The law caused so much backlash that Pence had to cancel public appearances and his state GOP openly sought his selection as Donald Trump’s running mate for President so that he wouldn’t run for governor again and risk losing the seat. The legislature eventually revised the law.

“Governor Kristi Noem is taking on the mantle then-Governor Pence assumed as the face of LGBTQ discrimination,” Alphonso David, President of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a press release. “While she may see discrimination as a path to the national far right spotlight, she should understand the damage she is doing to the state of South Dakota and LGBTQ people who are simply looking to live their lives free of fear and exclusion.”

He added, “South Dakotans believe in religious liberty and LGBTQ equality — those two values are not mutually exclusive. Governor Noem is risking economic, legal, and reputational harm to South Dakota by signing a law that takes the state backwards, all while South Dakotans continue to suffer the severe consequences of her absolute failure to act to curb the COVID-19 pandemic in the state.”

 


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