The Religious Freedom Restoration Act: A New Line Of Defense In Indiana?

Does the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) provide an affirmative defense in criminal cases in Indiana? The FRAU was signed into law with the purpose of essentially allowing people whose religious convictions run up against the law to avoid being forced to obey the law unless absolutely necessary for the sake of a civilized society. However, felony criminal defendants are also finding them RFRA provides them a new method of defense, depending on the circumstances of their case. Since there are actually 21 states with some version of a religious freedom act in place, the implications go far beyond Indiana as well. 

What does the RFRA do and why is it important?

The RFRA requires the government, in the form of the prosecution, to show that it is not substantially burdening an individual's exercise of religion by forcing him or her to obey the law. If there is a substantial burden, the individual is excused from obeying the law unless

  • the government can prove it has a compelling interest in enforcing it anyhow, and 
  • there's no other, less-restrictive alternative that would still meet that compelling interest while being less burdensome for the individual.

The aim of the law is the prevent someone like a Catholic pharmacist from getting into trouble for refusing to dispense emergency contraceptives despite state laws. It has also been seen as allowing certain groups to continue to openly discriminate against gays and lesbians despite state laws forbidding such discrimination.

How has the RFRA opened new doors in criminal defense?

The RFRA opened up the door to its use as a criminal defense in part because it was hastily written and didn't specifically exempt criminal offenses from the law's reach. At least four Indiana cases have cited the RFRA as an affirmative defense, or one that essentially negates the consequences of unlawful conduct. 

One case involved members of the First Church of Cannabis, who believe that they should be exempt from state marijuana laws because they use marijuana as a sacrament. In a much more sobering case, the RFRA has been raised as a defense to child abuse charges by a woman who follows a strict Biblical code that endorses beating a misbehaving child to save his or her soul. Another case involves felony tax evasion charges, though it's unclear at this time exactly how paying taxes puts a burden on the defendant's religion.

Since each case is unique because it centers around both the facts and your own religion, an attorney can help you understand if this is a plausible defense in your case. If you live in Indiana or any of the other states with some version of a religious freedom act, speak with your attorney.