Who's pushing the 'religious freedom' legislation in states?

Indiana's 'Religious Freedom Restoration Act' is kicking up a media storm over discrimination toward homosexuals.  Some say Indiana's new law is the result of the reach of a conservative group that helps write model legislation. 

(AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)
Thousands of opponents of Indiana Senate Bill 101, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, gathered on the lawn of the Indiana State House to rally against that legislation Saturday, March 28, 2015. Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed a bill Thursday prohibiting state laws that "substantially burden" a person's ability to follow his or her religious beliefs.

A recent opinion piece by Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, lamented Indiana’s new 'Religious Freedom Restoration Act' as what he characterized as a “wave of legislation" which some claim is the result of the emerging power and reach of conservative "bill mills."

“There’s something very dangerous happening in states across the country. A wave of legislation, introduced in more than two dozen states, would allow people to discriminate against their neighbors,” Mr. Cook wrote in The Washington Post. “Some, such as the bill enacted in Indiana last week that drew a national outcry and one passed in Arkansas, say individuals can cite their personal religious beliefs to refuse service to a customer or resist a state nondiscrimination law. Others are more transparent in their effort to discriminate.”

Cook was referring to Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and his state's new "religious freedom" law, which gives business owners the right to decline serving customers based on religious grounds – in effect turning away LGBT customers  

Some Democrats and political analysts say that the "wave" Cook refers to is not originating with voters, but rather conservative "bill mills" that finance state legislators to attend educational conferences that may provide both unified ideas and prefabricated bills to take home.  Specifically, they see  The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) as the primary driver of conservative state laws.

But when asked whether ALEC was involved in supporting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, ALEC spokesperson Bill Meierling responds: “We do not work on firearms, marriage equality, immigration, any of those things people frequently say are ours.” 

Still, North Carolina state Rep. Graig R. Meyer of (D) Durham says that ALEC is having a profound effect on how state legislators in his state are picking their targets.

"While ALEC may not be directly distributing the template legislation we’re seeing pop up all over the country, they are the primary conservative legislative exchange and are courting legislators at their educational seminars and conferences," Mr. Meyer says in a phone interview.

One such ALEC conference was held in North Carolina. “While nobody can say for sure where the next religious freedom law bill will pop up, it’s probably a safe bet to look at where their most recent national conferences were held and where the next one will be,” says Meyer. 

The last ALEC national conference was held in December in Washington, D.C. The next one coming up will be in San Diego, Calif., according to ALEC's Meierling. He describes the organization as "an exchange of legislators and entrepreneurs who come together to discuss policy.”

A Source Watch report on the legislative authors of Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) shows many are also on the ALEC Indiana membership list.  Three of the bill's co-authors are also ALEC Task Force committee chairs, including Indiana state Sen. Carlin J. Yoder (R) of District 12, Sen. Jean Leising (R) of District 42, and Sen. Jim Buck (R) of District 21, according to Source Watch.

Other Democratic legislators say ALEC is shaping conservative legislation in their state. For example, Arizona state Sen. Steve Farley sees the non-profit group as a driver of debate on gun legislation and the recently aired idea of mandating church attendance in his state.

Both concepts were championed by Arizona state Sen. Sylvia Allen, (R) of Snowflake. While ALEC’s website does not currently list gun legislation as part of its national agenda, Mr. Farley points out that the organization once pushed the proliferation of state Stand Your Ground Law laws.

Farley describes the comments by Senator Allen as "all part of a mindset that is driving one piece of bad gun legislation after another, not just here but nationally," he says. "This is the same mindset allowing businesses in Indiana to refuse service to the LGBT community. A culture of gun-toting, prejudice is consciously being spread all over the place and the American Legislative Exchange Council  (ALEC) is using leaders like Sylvia Allen to spread this legislative thinking."

Source Watch lists current and former Arizona politicians who are ALEC members, including Sylvia Allen.

Meierling at ALEC responds that Senator Allen is not listed as an ALEC member, although Arizona has been the site of ALEC conferences. 

“All of our policy is essentially related to economic freedom, decreasing the cost of doing business and creating a stable and predictable business environment,” Meierling says. “As you might imagine, none of the things Senator Farley talked about have anything to do with a stable and predictable business environment. So it fits quite nicely that we’re not actually doing any of that.”

Meierling adds, “Limited government, free market and Federalism –  if it doesn’t have to do with those three things we don’t do it.”

"It’s semantics," says Michael J. Gerhardt, director of the Center for Law and Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He continues that " ALEC has a relationship with legislators and people in the Republican Party that strikes me as unhealthy.... This is very disconcerting to those following the pattern of influence by ALEC across the nation coming perhaps in part as a result of the educational conferences they hold for Republican legislators.”

Meanwhile, in Virginia, the liberal advocacy group Progress Virginia is attempting to “Close the ALEC loophole” via an ethics bill which which seeks to end the practice of allowing legislators to seek reimbursement – or scholarships – for travel to educational conferences, such as those offered by ALEC.

“It is our contention that no individual, legislator or not, is an expert on all things and it’s incumbent on each individual – particularly those who are elected leaders - to seek ongoing education,” says Meierling, the ALEC spokesman. “Of course there’s this thing called human free will. So legislators are going to decide for themselves and decide on behalf of their constituents what is best for their specific community. But, how can they make the best decisions if they have no information? So we, we, encourage legislators to come and participate with us, even when they disagree, or agree.”

Deborah Gerhardt, a law professor in North Carolina is fighting what she refers to as “ALEC-driven education legislation" being offered in the North Carolina State Legislature concludes, “People don’t realize the magnitude of ALEC’s influence in legislatures all over the nation right now. We need more to come to light.”

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