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What are RFRAs?

What are RFRAs?

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To a large extent, the Arkansas and Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Acts — and those in several other states — were modeled after a federal law enacted in 1993 with broad bipartisan support. But critics of the new measures say they were designed with a different motive — to shield businesses and individuals who do not want to be part of same-sex weddings. Here's more about these laws:

How does the federal law differ from the state laws?

The federal version of the law was signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton and was considered a liberal response to a conservative Supreme Court ruling in 1990. The court ruled against Native Americans who argued that their use of peyote was a religious requirement. In effect, the court decided that states could ban the sacramental use of peyote.

Liberals moved to protect the tribes by passing a measure to protect religious practices from government interference. Today, conservatives are seeking the new laws.

There are differences between the federal and state laws. The federal law could be used only if someone was suing the government for violating his or her right to the free exercise of religion. The state laws are broader, applying to civil lawsuits involving individuals, and could be used by businesses that want to prevent a service because it violates their religious principles.

What kinds of claims might arise under state RFRAs?

The typical example brought up today is a Christian baker, whose faith opposes same-sex marriage, deciding not to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. The couple sue the baker, claiming that they were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.

But there are a vast variety of regulatory laws that individuals may object to on religious grounds. These range from Muslim police officers who object to grooming regulations that prevent them from growing beards to parents whose religious beliefs preclude them from obtaining vaccinations for their children. Other claims could come from the Amish, who object to building codes; New Testament literalists, who refuse to allow their children to wear school identification badges containing RFID chips because they are seen as "the mark of the beast;" or the Orthodox Jew who resists a subpoena to appear in court on Yom Kippur.

Why is there such a push for such laws now?

In the past two years, numerous judges across the country have struck down state bans on same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments April 28 in a case over the constitutionality of such bans that could legalize gay marriage nationwide.

In a key case, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that a photography studio violated the state's Human Rights Act by refusing to photograph a lesbian couple's commitment ceremony. The court rejected the studio's effort to invoke the state's religious freedom act, holding that the law applied only to lawsuits against a government agency, not to disputes between private parties.

Partly in response to that case, conservative lawmakers in several states proposed religious-protection legislation aimed at shielding people from private discrimination lawsuits if they felt that doing business with same-sex couples violated their religious beliefs.

It is widely believed that Indiana's law, before it was amended Thursday, was designed to shield businesses and individuals who do not want to be part of same-sex weddings. When Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed the law, the right-leaning group Advance America gave "three examples" of how the law would change Indiana:

• "Christian bakers, florists and photographers should not be punished for refusing to participate in a homosexual marriage!"

• "A Christian business should not be punished for refusing to allow a man to use the women's restroom!"

• "A church should not be punished because they refuse to let the church be used for a homosexual wedding!"

This report includes material from the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press and McClatchy Washington Bureau.

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