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At Issue Religious freedom

At Issue: Religious freedom

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In a nutshell

Assembly Joint Resolution 43 and Senate Joint Resolution 38 aim to amend the state Constitution, adding a right to act — or refuse to act — based on religious conviction unless the government proves that the action would violate laws, rules or regulations that the state has a “compelling interest” in enforcing. The government would also need to prove it was using the “least-restrictive” means. If enacted in two consecutive Legislative sessions and approved by voters, the amendment would prohibit the state from “burdening the right to conscience” even indirectly, for example by withholding benefits or imposing penalties or excluding someone from facilities.

The case for it

Rep. David Craig, R-Big Bend, said the amendment would merely lock in the principles of a 1996 state Supreme Court ruling that allowed Amish to use lanterns and reflective tape instead of fluorescent “slow moving vehicle” signs on carriages. Craig said he wants to prevent courts and lawmakers from eroding the rights of others to act on conscience. Craig pointed to lawsuits that have forced Wisconsin schools to change practices that infringed on religious expression by students or others.

“It’s making sure that our state understands, that our police force understands and our school superintendents understand,” Craig said.

Pro-Life Wisconsin has registered as a lobbyist in favor.

The case against it

“The proposed amendment uses such broad language that it is unclear how expansive its impact would be,” said Patrick Elliott, staff attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison. “Using religion as a trump card ... very well could impact discrimination in public accommodations, public school instruction and health care services.”

The Constitution already protects the right of conscience from government interference, Elliott said. “The religious right backers of the amendment are seeking to use it to advance their agenda,” he said.

Sen. Fred Risser of Madison, the ranking Democratic member of the Senate judiciary committee, called Craig’s proposal “the anarchy amendment” because it would allow “kooks” to start new religions, or interpret old faiths, to justify all kinds of behaviors.

“If a man feels in his religion that he can beat is wife, I suppose under this amendment he can do it,” Risser said.

To get involved

To contact your lawmaker about this or any other bill, call the legislative hotline, which is staffed from 8:15 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. weekdays at 608-266-9960 or 800-362-9472. To send an email, go to the Legislature’s website at legis.wisconsin.gov, select Assembly or Senate and then “Email directory.”

— Steven Verburg

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.

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