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Alabama: "Religious freedom" bill would legalize discrimination

MONTGOMERY, Alabama -- The legislative session in Alabama opened Tuesday with the introduction of a "religious freedom" bill that is far broader than existing exemptions in other states.

HB 56 would allow religious organizations to refuse solemnizing and recognizing any marriage, and prevents the government from penalizing organizations for their refusal to recognize marriage.

In addition, the bill broadly defines religious organizations to include social service organizations. Because Alabama has no LGBT non-discrimination protections, this bill would exempt organizations from the general rules applicable to spouses, and could allow, for example, a religious hospital to refuse to recognize the spouse of a patient.

The bill holds:

• “A religious organization shall be immune from any civil claim or cause of action, or any criminal prosecution, based on a refusal to solemnize or recognize any marriage under this section or any other provision of Alabama law.”

• “No religious organization is required to provide accommodations, facilities, advantages, privileges, services, or goods related to the recognition, solemnization, or celebration of a marriage.”

Susan Watson, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, condemned the bill.

"Same-sex couples in Alabama have enjoyed equal marriage rights for less than one month and already state lawmakers have made their intentions to reverse this progress extremely clear," she said.

"Current law reserves the right for houses of worship and clergy to freely determine which marriages they will and won’t perform in their faith traditions. Bills like HB 56 would legalize discrimination and compromise equal protection under the law for all Alabamians."

The bill is scheduled for a hearing in the House on Wednesday. This legislative session, religious exemptions bills have been introduced nationwide in higher volume and of greater variety compared to 2014 and the trend is expected to continue.