News & Resources

The Oklahoma Supreme Court Interprets the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act

Jan 23, 2018 - Court Decisions by

The Oklahoma Supreme Court recently decided a case involving the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act.  In Beach v. Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, 2017 OK 40, 398 P.3d 1, the plaintiff alleged that her religious rights were violated because she was required to submit a high-resolution facial photograph to renew her driver’s license.  The plaintiff claimed that her “sincerely held” religious beliefs forbade her from participating in a global-numbering identification system, using the “number of man,” and that her beliefs “eternally concern her for participation in any such system.”  In particular, the plaintiff complained that the State used measurements off of her facial points to determine a “number that is specific to her” for use with facial recognition software.  She believed the resulting number was the “number of a man” referred to in Revelation 13:16-18.

In 2000, Oklahoma enacted the “Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act” (ORFA).  51 O.S. §253.  The OFRA mandates that no governmental entity shall substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.  In this case, the Court held that the plaintiff did not produce any evidence that the State had substantially burdened the free exercise of her articulated religious beliefs, nor any evidence to support her “fear” that the State would be distributing her personal data on an international scale in violation of her religious beliefs.  Because the plaintiff failed to state a prima facie case for violation of the ORFA, the burden did not shift to the State to show that the rule was essential to a compelling government interest and that the rule was the least restrictive means of doing so.

Further, the Court held that the issue was, in reality, “moot” because the plaintiff had submitted biometric photos and fingerprints on at least two or three previous occasions, and that the plaintiff was already included in the State’s identification system.  The Court held that “[b]ecause Department already has Appellant’s biometric photo and fingerprints in its system, the matter presented is moot.”

The case is important for those parties who seek to establish a violation of the ORFA.  The Court’s holding implies that the plaintiff must make some factual showing that his or her religiously-motivated beliefs are “substantially” inhibited or burdened by the State law at issue.  An unsubstantiated “fear” is likely insufficient to make such a showing.  And, only if the plaintiff makes such a factual showing will the State be required to affirmatively establish why such a rule or law is necessary.