Nelson: Protecting religious liberty in Minnesota

Senator Carla Nelson
3 min readApr 22, 2024

NOTE: This column was originally published in the Stewartville Star.


The Minnesota legislature is grappling with a controversial issue that has faith communities concerned about their ability to operate according to their deeply held beliefs and missions.

Here’s what happened: last session, Democrats made changes to Minnesota’s Human Rights Act to add specific discrimination protections for gender identity. These protections were added alongside existing discrimination protections for race, religion, disability, national origin, sex, marital status, familial status, age, and sexual orientation.

The problem is that when they made this change, they failed to include exemptions based on sincerely held religious beliefs — exemptions part of the Human Rights Act since its inception. These exemptions allow religious institutions to operate in a manner consistent with their faith and with the full freedom of religion guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.

When the omission was discovered, many thought it was an accidental oversight. Minnesota’s Human Rights Act has long had exemptions for religious liberty. Surely Democrats did not mean to delete them.

However, when Republicans brought this issue up during a House of Representatives committee hearing, a Democrat representative confirmed those protections were removed deliberately.

In the following weeks, leaders from the Catholic Church, Lutheran denominations, Islamic organizations, and more have been sounding the alarm. They are rightfully worried that without religious freedom protections in place, they will be forced to adopt practices and policies that violate their core tenets and face potential lawsuits.

In our state, constitutional protections are paramount. People are allowed to disagree with each other’s religious values, but faith-based institutions must have the freedom to develop practices and make decisions aligning with their foundational beliefs.

Religious freedom doesn’t mean those faiths are free to engage in discrimination. It means they are free to run their organizations consistent with their faith traditions. It allows a degree of autonomy for those organizations, especially in key areas directly tied to their mission or foundational values — issues like hiring practices and housing, for example. Eliminating religious protections poses a serious threat to all religious groups.

Throughout our country’s history, religious groups have faced persecution when forced to follow beliefs that conflicted with their own deeply held views. The Founding Fathers added religious freedom protections to avoid such repression, and those rights extend beyond how people practice their faith in the privacy of their own homes.

Everyone should be able to live free of discrimination, but we do need a balanced approach that also protects religious freedoms and the autonomy of religious groups. Our laws should not undermine the deeply held values millions of Minnesotans follow.

I am asking my fellow senators to listen to leaders across the faith spectrum and restore religious freedom protections deleted last year. My Republican colleagues and I have a bill, Senate File 3848, to enshrine these religious freedom protections in state statute once again, but it has not yet received a hearing.

We have an opportunity to make a bipartisan commitment to faith groups across Minnesota. We should quickly pass Senate File 3848, restore these religious freedom protections, and put this divisive issue behind us.