Religious Freedom

Religious Liberties Bills and the Media: Portrayal, Bias, and Responsibility

Written By: Sumer Brito, Student Policy Associate

Religion has been a fundamental construct that not only plays a role in the law today but also nearly 200 years ago when drafters of the Constitution argued the extent of religion within politics. In September of 1789, Congress adopted the First Amendment to the Constitution, forbidding Congress to make any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” Despite the collective belief that the United States would remain a secular state, our founding fathers remained steadfast in protecting the rights of those with religious convictions.

Religious freedom bills, designed to safeguard the rights of individuals and organizations to practice their faith freely, have become a complex and multifaceted issue that has evoked strong reactions from various segments of society. However, in recent years, the media coverage of these bills has highlighted negative connotations, sparking debates and discussions that have overshadowed their profound impact on people. This article delves into the complex relationship between religious liberty legislation and the media, exploring the role of portrayal, bias, and responsibility in shaping our perceptions of this critical issue.

The Power of Media Portrayal

         Media outlets have an undeniable influence on the public’s perceptions and attitudes. The way in which religious liberty bills are portrayed can impact how the public perceives them. The primary challenge in this media coverage has been the striking balance between religious freedom and concerns regarding equality and non-discrimination. Some critics argue that these bills have enabled discrimination, especially against marginalized groups, under the guise of protecting one’s religious beliefs. This framing has led to a negative portrayal of such legislation, emphasizing that they exude more harm than preserving religious freedom.

         With an increase in polarization and political partisanship, media outlets lean towards sensationalizing stories that align with their audiences’ existing beliefs. Due to this polarized portrayal of religious liberty bills, there is a greater focus on divisive aspects rather than fostering nuanced conversations. Take, for example, the Freedom of Religious Restoration Act passed in Indiana in 2015. The bill aimed to protect individuals and businesses from government actions that may infringe on their religious beliefs. However, critics argued that the legislation provided a legal cover for outright discrimination, more specifically towards the LGBTQ+ community. Yet, it was the media outlets, driven by the desire to attract attention and engage their audiences, that polarized the public’s perception of the RFRA. While conservative media outlets framed the bill as a necessary defense of religious freedom against government outreach, liberal-leaning media sources portrayed the bill as discriminatory towards marginalized communities. The vast differences in media coverage led to widespread protests, boycotts, and condemnation from various sectors of society.1 The focus on conflicting viewpoints and the resultant public backlash overshadowed the bill’s intended purpose of furthering the protections made under the First Amendment.

Inherently, there is also the challenge of bias. Bias is an inevitable aspect of media coverage as journalists and editors carry their own perspectives, beliefs, and worldviews despite diligent efforts to write neutrally. When covering religious liberty bills, bias can manifest in various forms, including through the quotes, sources, and language used in articles. For instance, a study by the Pew Research Center found that media outlets with specific political orientations tend to frame issues like religious liberty in ways that align with their ideological stance, contributing to the polarization of public discourse.2 

Moreover, sensationalism, inherent to media coverage seeking engagement, can exacerbate negative portrayals. Controversial stories tend to attract more attention, which may influence media outlets’ inclusion of exaggerated instances where religious liberty bills intersect with controversial situations.2 There is greater traction when a story reads Discriminatory “Religious Freedom” Bill is Bad for Our State rather than A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.2

Responsibility to Seek Objective Truth

As consumers of media, it is crucial to analyze narratives surrounding religious liberty bills critically. Recognizing personal biases is the first step, followed by actively seeking a comprehensive understanding through diverse sources. Delving into primary texts, listening to legal experts, and engaging with representatives from both sides of the debate are vital to forming an informed opinion. This approach aligns with the tenets of media literacy, emphasizing the importance of questioning narratives and evaluating sources.

Looking at the Federal 1993 RFRA, an overwhelming bipartisan rejection occurred over the decision made by Justice Scalia in Employment Division vs. Smith. The ruling stood for the proposition that “the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes).3’” In simpler terms, just because a law restricts or requires a certain behavior that aligns with or contradicts someone’s religious beliefs, that individual is still obligated to follow the law. This concept underscores that while religious freedom is important, it does not grant an individual the right to disregard laws that are considered fair and unbiased merely because those laws conflict with their religious practices or convictions.

Religious Liberty In Practice 

The case of Employment Division v. Smith involved two Native American employees who were fired from their jobs as counselors at a private drug rehabilitation organization for using peyote, a hallucinogenic substance, as part of their religious ceremonies. The employees applied for unemployment benefits, but the state of Oregon denied them on the grounds that they were discharged for work-related misconduct. The central issue was whether the state’s denial of unemployment benefits violated the employees’ First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.4

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled against the employees, maintaining their dismissal did not violate their First Amendment rights. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, held that laws that incidentally burden religious practices are not subject to inquiry under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.4 The Court established that as long as a law is neutral to all religions and generally applicable, it need not meet a higher standard of review even if it impacts religious practices. This decision limited the scope of protection for religious practices under the First Amendment by providing a narrower interpretation of the Free Exercise Clause. The ruling essentially shifted the burden from the government to individuals seeking religious exemptions from neutral laws.4 Contextually, this had the same ability to enforce the legal right that an employer could force an individual who practices Orthodox Judaism to work on the Sabbath despite their religious convictions. This garnered extensive traction from critics who argued that the ruling undermined the protection of religious practices and disadvantaged minority religious groups severely. Fear circulated that it would inevitably give states the authority to infringe on one’s religious freedoms without adequate justification.5 

Thus, in response to the concerns raised by Employment Division v. Smith, Congress passed the RFRA to restore a higher standard of review for religious liberty claims. The RFRA requires that if a law burdens a person’s exercise of religion, the government must demonstrate a compelling interest and use the least restrictive means to achieve that interest.6 This legislative response aimed to provide stronger safeguards for religious practices while addressing the limitations of the Court’s ruling.

Despite the liberties that this bill has given to practicing individuals, its negative portrayal in the media continues to undermine the principles it was founded on. During more than 30 years that the Federal RFRA has been in operation, courts have never read it as a blanket license to discriminate. 

Thus, in a landscape where media wields considerable power, the intricate dance between religious liberties bills and their portrayal underscores the delicate balance between principles and prejudices. The Founding Fathers’ foresight in safeguarding religious freedoms has set the stage for an ongoing dialogue that resonates throughout history. Yet, as we navigate the labyrinth of media portrayal and bias, the true essence of these bills often becomes obscured by sensationalism and polarization.

The media’s influence on public perception is profound and far-reaching. The tug-of-war between religious freedom and potential discrimination encapsulates the heart of these debates. The coverage of religious liberty bills, such as the case of Indiana’s RFRA, has exemplified how media outlets, driven by the pursuit of attention, can distort the public’s understanding. This distortion not only divides communities but also sidetracks from the genuine intention of such bills—to uphold the cherished rights enshrined in the Constitution.

Bias, an inescapable facet of media coverage, amplifies this polarization. As ideological orientations mold narratives, the shades of truth often blur into stark contrasts. The Pew Research Center’s findings illuminate the role of media in perpetuating division, as outlets cater to existing beliefs, further entrenching the chasm between perspectives. Sensationalism, another potent tool in the media’s arsenal, transforms nuanced situations into heated controversies, overshadowing the comprehensive context that these bills demand. However, as media recipients, our responsibility lies in piercing this veil of sensationalism and prejudice. Recognizing our own biases is the first step toward a more informed perspective. Engaging with diverse sources, consulting experts, and probing primary materials are crucial practices for embracing media literacy. This journey of seeking objective truth aligns with the essence of democratic discourse, enabling us to grasp the complexities underlying legislative efforts to balance religious freedoms and equality.

Reflecting on the 1993 RFRA case, we find an echo of the enduring struggle between religious convictions and societal obligations. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Employment Division v. Smith, followed by the legislative response in the form of the RFRA, unveils the evolving nature of this battle. While the RFRA sought to fortify religious safeguards, the media’s portrayal often sidesteps its true essence, perpetuating misconceptions about its potential for discrimination.

In conclusion, the relationship between religious liberties bills and media portrayal holds up a mirror to our society’s evolving temper. As the media shapes our perceptions, we must be vigilant in discerning truth from distortion. The path forward requires us to engage critically, transcend bias, and embrace the complexity that these bills encapsulate. We can only bridge the gap between principles, bias, and responsibility to forge a more enlightened discourse for future generations.


  1. Diaz, A. (2015, March 31). Backlash builds over Indiana’s religious freedom law. CBS News. 
  2. Walker, M., & Gottfried, J. (2020, October 28). Americans blame unfair news coverage on media outlets, not the journalists who work for them. Pew Research Center. 
  3. Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith. (n.d.). Oyez. Retrieved August 29, 2023, from
  4. Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990)
  5. Blaine L. Hutchison, Revisiting Employment Division v. Smith, 91 U. Cin. L. Rev. 396 (2022)
  6.  Douglas Laycock and Thomas Berg, Protecting free exercise under Smith and after Smith, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 19, 2021, 6:37 PM),

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