New Mexico Starts the New Year With a Bill to Discriminate Against LGBT People

New Mexico Republicans have proposed a bill that could grant businesses a broad right to discriminate against LGBT people. Here’s what you need to know.

The legislation, known as HB55, was filed by Rep. David Gallegos (R-Lea County) and Rep. Nora Espinoza (R-Chavez and Lincoln Counties). The bill would prevent the state from burdening “a person’s free exercise of religion by requiring the person to provide a service or to conduct business in a manner inconsistent with adherence to that person’s sincerely held religious belief.”

The legislation may sound innocuous enough and merely a restatement of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but civil rights groups say that the actual text of the bill appears to gut the New Mexico Human Rights act by in large part nullifying civil rights protections for LGBT people, as well as overruling the New Mexico Supreme Court decision in Elane Photography v. Willock, where a photography business was successfully sued for refusing service to a same-gender couple’s civil partnership ceremony solely on the basis of their sexual orientation.

The legislation would specifically remove sexual orientation and gender identity from the state’s nondiscrimination protections while appearing to prevent those classifications from being added at a later date by local governments. In addition, and even more concerning, the language of the bill defines corporations and government agencies as people: “‘[P]erson’ means one or more individuals, a limited liability company, partnership, association, organization, corporation, joint venture or any legal or commercial entity, legal representative, business trust, estate, trust, trustees, receivers or government agency.”

As a result, civil rights groups are warning this bill could technically mean health care providers and other vital services could refuse to treat people based on the owner of that company’s religious beliefs. Equality New Mexico says it believes the bill could even let social service agencies refuse to place children with same-gender couples based solely on their sexual orientation. To be clear, it’s unknown whether this was the intent of the bill, but because the language is so sweeping a reasonable argument might be made that this bill is attempting to undermine other protections and set the state against federal laws that would protect people in this legal area. In addition, by defining government agencies as people the bill would also seem to give the right to discriminate to those agencies responsible for handling marriage licenses, thereby undermining this year’s Supreme Court marriage equality ruling.

Other lawmakers have also spoken out against the proposed legislation, saying that while religious freedom is undeniably important this bill goes further to create an unconstitutional license to discriminate.

“Religious freedom is one of our country’s fundamental values, and following the teachings of one’s faith is important, but that freedom doesn’t give any of us the right to impose our beliefs on others,” Sen. Jacob Candelaria (D-Bernalillo) is quoted as saying. “Government officials swear an oath to faithfully and impartially discharge the duties of their office. When public officials seek to deny services to taxpaying citizens based on their religious beliefs, they are not living up to that oath or serving the common good.”

The good news is that the coming legislative session is only 30 days long and all legislation must be selected for debate by Republican Governor Susana Martinez. Given that the state is facing substantial fiscal issues, Martinez could reasonably refuse this legislation without facing substantial backlash from her party. In addition, businesses have also said they are opposed to this legislation, fearing that what happened to Indiana in 2015 when it introduced its religious right to discriminate bill – for example, the threat of boycott – will happen in New Mexico.

However, the introduction of this legislation is a timely reminder of last year’s battle against expanded RFRA’s. Unfortunately, we can probably expect to see more of these kinds of bills filed throughout the US in the next few weeks and months, particularly as Republican presidential hopefuls continue to back expanded religious rights to discriminate at the federal level.