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On July 1, 2009, Governor Phil Bredesen signed into law legislation intended to preserve religious freedom in Tennessee. Designated as House Bill 1598, the new law adopts the “compelling state interest” test in all cases in which the free exercise of religion is substantially burdened. In order to justify a law which substantially burdens a person’s right of free exercise of religion, the state has the burden of proving that the law is essential to further a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. If someone’s exercise of religion has been burdened in violation of the law, he or she may assert the violation as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding. If that person prevails in such a proceeding, the court may award attorney's fees and court costs as reimbursement for these litigation expenses.
Tennessee now joins 15 other states to enact religious freedom laws adopting the compelling interest test to free exercise of religion. Such action has been prompted in part by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997), that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed by the Congress was unconstitutional. The RFRA was federal legislation intended to restore the compelling interest test, but the Supreme Court said that the Congress had exceeded its authority in doing so.