Lawsuit Against Boone County Sheriff’s Office in Indiana: How RFRAs Help Protect Against Religious Discrimination

Remember the controversial Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)? That law led to a major culture war battle that was reported throughout the United States and around the world. In the end, the law was amended so that it could not be used by businesses to promote discrimination against anyone, including members of the LGBT community. In other words it became a standard RFRA, and as RFRAs have done hundreds of times, it is now being used to protect a religious minority from discrimination.

A Muslim prisoner named Thomas Gannon, who is being held in the county jail, was served pork and other non-Halal meat even after he informed prison officials that the food conflicts with his religion. The prison denied Gannon’s request to be served Halal food. The ACLU of Indiana recently filed suit on behalf of Gannon under several laws, including the state RFRA.

This is an important reminder of what most RFRAs are really about: Protecting those whose religion is not considered in the political process and are therefore substantially burdened by laws. As Thomas Gannon’s situation demonstrates these people can be put in untenable positions unless there is a RFRA to protect their rights. The beneficiaries of RFRAs are often, although not always, religious minorities. As I wrote in Freedom’s Edge:

“Most importantly, the vast majority of religious freedom concerns have no impact whatsoever on LGBT or reproductive rights. In fact, many such cases have no impact on anyone’s rights other than those of the religious person asserting the claim. A small list of examples includes requests for exemptions to school policies requiring students to take tests or attend class on holy days; claims for access to kosher or halal food in government-run facilities such as prisons; claims by Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and others to be able to cover their heads in places where the law generally requires the removal of head coverings; claims by adults to refuse certain medical treatments that they believe threaten their eternal being; claims by Native Americans to be able to follow rituals regardless of contrary government regulation; and claims by churches to not be bound by laws that fundamentally impact their religious values and for which exemptions would harm no one else. These basic religious freedom claims have little or no impact on anyone but the claimants and their coreligionists.”

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