HB1615 would allow religious groups that discriminate to sue the state for license revocation or denial of accreditation.

The legislature’s love affair with discriminatory religious groups continues.

HB1615 would allow private businesses and organizations, like Christian foster care and adoption groups, to sue the state of Arkansas for nearly any reason — so long as the state “burdens” or possibly burdens a group’s beliefs. Though religious nonprofits can already discriminate based on beliefs, this bill would allow faith-based businesses and even individuals a guaranteed civil course of action with the state.

The bill’s sponsors want Christian entities with certain state licenses and accreditations to be able to deny services to those who don’t uphold their traditional family values. In other words these state-licensed groups wish to discriminate against those with whom the groups disagree and not face any consequences from the state.

Sponsors then want these groups, businesses, and individuals to be able to sue the state if the state penalizes groups for discriminatory practices. However, this is in direct conflict with the state’s right to sovereign immunity. Again, religious nonprofits like churches and charity organizations can already discriminate based on religion. But HB1615 is a big civil leap from this; it creates a private cause of action against the state for reasons beyond violation of constitutional rights.

HB1615 sponsor Rep. Robin Lundstrum

The foster care and adoption process is a specific example laid out in the bill, and sponsors are not shy about the legislation’s intent, which is to:

  • Ensure that faith-based adoption and foster-care providers remain free to serve children in need and work with the state to find loving, permanent homes for children.
  • Prohibit the government from discriminating against certain individuals and organizations because of their beliefs regarding marriage or what it means to be female and male.
  • Ensure that individuals and organizations cannot be compelled, either by the government or through a lawsuit initiated by a private party, to engage in conduct that conflicts with their beliefs, or be punished or discriminated against for declining to engage in conduct that conflicts with their beliefs.

For example, this bill would allow a faith-based adoption organization to legally deny gay couples service. If the state revokes the group’s license because the group denied a gay couple child placement, the group can sue the state per HB1615.

Right now, Arkansas maintains state sovereign immunity via a provision in which a state cannot be sued in federal and state court without its consent. HB1615 carves out a private, religious discrimination path from the sovereign immunity statute.

Perhaps there are current Arkansas-based foster care or adoption groups that have lost their license because of discriminatory practices, in which case this bill would provide groups an onramp to civil action with the state. Regardless of the bill’s origin, the proposed legislation is problematic, as it allows private beliefs to trump the state’s responsibility to fair and equitable practices, as well as the state’s own sovereign immunity.