South Dakota accused of legalising LGBT+ discrimination through backdoor church bill

South Dakota governor Kristi Noem CPAC

South Dakota has signed into law a bill that could open up anti-LGBT+ discrimination under the guise of protecting religious beliefs.

Republican governor of South Dakota Kristi Noem signed Senate Bill 124 on Wednesday (10 March) which would give churches leeway to operate during the pandemic.

The bill states that the government would not be able to “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” without “compelling government interest”.

But human rights advocates say the bill would allow for discrimination against LGBT+ people across a wide range of goods and services. Activists warn the language is so broadly written that it could enable discrimination against anyone who offends an individual’s or institution’s religious beliefs.

It is similar to the religious freedom restoration act (RFRA) which then-governor of Indiana Mike Pence signed into law in 2015. The RFRA allows Indiana businesses to cite their religious freedom as a legal defence, which can be used to discriminate against the LGBT+ community based on religion.

The 19th reported at least 36 RFRA-type bills – including SB 124 in South Dakota – have been filed in state legislatures since January 2021. Of these, 25 have been attached to bills intended to allow churches to operate during COVID.

Speaking to The Advocate, Janna Fairley, communications director for the ACLU of South Dakota, said religious liberty is important, but it “shouldn’t be used to discriminate”.

“We’re deeply disappointed to see this bill signed into law and are concerned that it will be used to justify harm to already vulnerable communities,” Fairley said. “No one should be turned away from housing, health care or critical social services because of who they are.”

The organisation has urged the South Dakota legislature to change the wording of the bill so it only applied to government treatment of religious services, but it was not changed to do so.

Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), spoke out against SB 124 earlier this month, saying the bill “threatens protections for LGBTQ people, women and people of faith”.

“South Dakotans believe in religious liberty and LGBTQ equality — those two values are not mutually exclusive,” David said. “South Dakota potentially risks the loss of business opportunities and the revenue that comes with it, significant legal fees and damage to the state’s reputation.”

Noem has said she will sign into law a bill that would ban trans people from playing in sports that align with their gender identity. She said on Twitter on Monday (8 March) that she was “excited” to sign the bill “very soon”.

According to the Rapid City Journal, she is still evaluating the bill, despite her excitement for it to pass. She said during a press conference that she had no plans to meet with any trans people to discuss their thoughts on the bill, but South Dakota’s executive branch is “certainly open to listening to everybody”.

Protestors stood outside in the snow and freezing cold temperatures in solidarity with the trans community. The ACLU of South Dakota shared pictures from the protest on Twitter and said: “Today and everyday – trans people belong.”

The HRC also called for Noem to reject the bill. It wrote on Twitter that South Dakota “families were outside the State Capitol today to demand a veto”.