IAC Opposes House Bill 517: We Need Your Help

20 Feb 2024, by Sara Westbrook Share :

Yesterday, on a 10-6 vote, the House Judiciary and Rules Committee voted to send House Bill 517 to the floor with a “do pass” recommendation. While the bill is meant to address the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech, constitutionally protected rights that IAC members cherish, there are problems with the mechanics of the bill. We encourage our members to contact your state representatives to express concerns regarding House Bill 517.

One of the arguments the bill sponsors make is that there is no way for citizens to take action on the free exercise of religious acts in the state courts. However, this is incorrect. In 2000, the state legislature created the Idaho Free Exercise of Religion Protected Act (FERPA). This act allows for a cause of action in state courts. The Idaho Tort Claims Act also allows for causes of action to be taken if citizens feel that their speech or free exercise of religious rights are violated.

More IAC concerns include the following:

– It provides no sideboards or framework to prohibit frivolous, trivial, technical, de minimis claims.

– The Idaho Tort Claims Act provides exclusions related to things like acts of omission in the ordinary course of work responsibilities/regulatory responsibilities, assessment and collection of taxes and fees, certain law enforcement and probation and parole activities, matters related to vehicle registrations or licensures, etc. Similar exclusions are not included in House Bill 517, but they should be allowed for governments and government entities performing their statutorily required job responsibilities and duties.

– House Bill 517 does not require an individual bringing a claim to provide notice to a governmental entity of the individual’s intent to bring a claim, though this requirement is included in the Tort Claims Act. We believe this language should be added to House Bill 517.

– House Bill 517 provides no cap on attorney fees. Other laws, like the Idaho Tort Claims act and Idaho Public Employee Protection Act (whistleblowers), cap both damages and attorneys fees. In addition, House Bill 517 does not provide a mechanism for the government to recoup its legal fees if the government prevails in court. House Bill 517 should have additional sideboards capping attorney fees and allowing a governmental entity to seek attorney fees when the government prevails. Taxpayers should not be on the hook for these fees.

– House Bill 517 creates a civil cause of action capped at no more than $20,000. This is unprecedented in Idaho Code. Currently, no statutes guarantee civil right to damages for claims made against a county. Under the Idaho Tort Claims Act, a claimant must prove that the government harmed them through a “negligent or otherwise wrongful” act or omission. Under the Idaho Public Employees Protection Act, a claimant must likewise “establish, by a preponderance of the evident, that the employee has suffered an adverse action.” Under House Bill 517, a claimant is not obligated to establish through evidence that their religious or speech rights have been burdened.