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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Legal Analysis of Religious Exemptions for Photo Identification Requirements

Cynthia Brougher
Legislative Attorney

Recent controversies over state laws requiring voters to present identification when casting their ballots have raised questions about the burdens imposed on individuals who do not have photo identification, including those who object to photographs based on religious beliefs. The 112th Congress has introduced a number of bills directed at so-called voter ID requirements. Congress also has previously considered federal photo identification requirements, most recently in the REAL ID Act of 2005. A number of religious beliefs may conflict with requirements for photo identification, leading to questions about whether a religious exemption may be required to protect religious exercise.

The Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution generally prohibits Congress from enacting laws that restrict the free exercise of religion, guaranteeing individuals the right to practice their religious beliefs without government interference. To comport with the Free Exercise Clause, any neutral law of general applicability (i.e., those that do not target religion or require individual assessments) must be rationally related to a legitimate government purpose. If a state law with a photo requirement meets this standard of review, an exemption based on religion is not necessary under the federal constitution. Federal laws burdening religious exercise must also comport with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which provides a heightened level of review for such laws. Under RFRA, any federal law burdening religion generally must have a compelling governmental interest achieved by the least restrictive means possible. If the government can meet this standard of review, an exemption based on religion is not necessary under RFRA. State laws requiring photo identification would be required to comport with the Free Exercise Clause, as well as with any applicable state provisions that may provide heightened standards of review.

Generally, courts considering challenges to legal requirements that may infringe upon religious exercise consider whether the religious belief is sincerely held; whether it is substantially burdened; and whether the government’s interest in burdening the belief is sufficient under the applicable standard of review. These questions tend to distinguish sincere objections with actual burdens from so-called claims of convenience. In other words, courts look for evidence that the objector’s religious exercise is in direct conflict with a particular requirement, rather than being used as an excuse to avoid compliance with a law with which the individual merely disagrees.

This report will analyze the legal issues associated with religious exemptions to photo identification laws. Although no lawsuits appear to have challenged federal laws with photo requirements, state photo identification laws have been challenged for several decades. After discussing the legal requirements of the Free Exercise Clause and RFRA, the report will explain the elements of analysis necessary for legal challenges involving religious objections to photo requirements. The report will also analyze lawsuits that have challenged state photo requirements, including significant factors of consideration in such cases. Finally, the report will analyze what factors may be relevant in future decisions that may arise related to federal photo identification requirements and state voter identification requirements.

Date of Report: September 5, 2012
Number of Pages: 16
Order Number: R40515
Price: $29.95

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