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9 Things You Should Know About the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Twenty-five years ago this week, President Bill Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). At the time of the law’s signing, President Clinton said,

What (RFRA) basically says is that the government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone’s free exercise of religion. This judgment is shared by the people of the United States as well as by the Congress. We believe strongly that we can never, we can never be too vigilant in this work.

Here is what you should know about this landmark religious liberty law:

1. RFRA began as a reaction to an unexpected U.S. Supreme Court ruling handed down in 1990. In Employment Division v. Smith, the Court claimed the First Amendment is not violated when neutral, generally applicable laws conflict with religious practices. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, said the Court had never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that government is free to regulate. Allowing exceptions to every state law or regulation affecting religion, he wrote, “would open the prospect of constitutionally required exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind.”

2. Many Americans feared the new standard in the Smith case was a broad threat to religious liberty. In response, as the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty notes, an “extraordinary coalition of organizations coalesced to push for federal legislation that would ‘restore’ the pre-Smith compelling interest standard.” A group called the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion formed to lobby Congress to change the law. The coalition consisted of a broad spectrum of secular and religious groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Concerned Women for America, the American Humanist Association, Justice Fellowship, and the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (now the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission).

3. On March 11, 1993, Rep. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) introduced the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law intended to prevent other federal laws from substantially burdening a person’s free exercise of religion. The bill was approved by unanimous voice vote in the House of Representatives, and passed the Senate 97-3. The three “Nays” in the Senate were Robert Byrd (D-WV), Jesse Helms (R-NC), and Harlan Mathews (D-TN). The bill was signed into law by President Clinton on November 16.

4. According to the text of the law, the purposes of the RFRA are: (1) to restore the compelling interest test as set forth in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963) and Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972) and to guarantee its application in all cases where free exercise of religion is substantially burdened; and (2) to provide a claim or defense to persons whose religious exercise is substantially burdened by government.

5. RFRA restored a prior standard of religious exemptions that existed from 1963 to 1990. In the 1963 case Sherbert v. Verner the Supreme Court expressly adopted the constitutional exemption model, under which sincere religious objectors had a presumptive constitutional right to an exemption because of the Free Exercise clause. This decision was reaffirmed in the 1972 case Wisconsin v. Yoder. During this period the Court used what is called “strict scrutiny” when the law imposed a “substantial burden” on people’s religious beliefs. Under this strict scrutiny, religious objectors were to be given an exemption, unless denying the exemption was the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest. But during this period, as legal scholar Eugene Volokh notes, “The government usually won, and religious objectors won only rarely.”

6. In 2014, RFRA was used as the foundation in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Storesa challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s Health and Human Services (HHS) contraceptive mandate that required all for-profit companies to cover abortion-inducing drugs. The Court found that the HHS mandate violated RFRA by imposing a substantial burden on companies and by failing to satisfy least restrictive-means standard. The ruling was considered a significant win for the religious liberty of companies and business owners.

7. RFRA was intended to apply to all branches of government, and both to federal and state law. But in 1997 in the case of City of Boerne v. Flores, the Supreme Court ruled the RFRA exceeded federal power when applied to state laws. In response to this ruling, some individual states passed state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Acts that apply to state governments and local municipalities.

8. Many states began passing their own religious freedom laws in 1993. Currently, 21 states have a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia). Ten other states have religious liberty protections that state courts have interpreted to provide a similar (i.e., strict scrutiny) level of protection (Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Washington, and Wisconsin). With some exceptions (such as Mississippi), the state versions are almost exactly the same as the federal version.

9. In the years since the passage of RFRA, many of it previous supporters (including Hillary Clinton and the ACLU) have expressed concerns about its application and how it might be applied in the future. Last year a bill was entered in Congress to make RFRA inapplicable to federal laws or implementations of laws when religious beliefs conflict with a variety of issues, such as abortion or gender identity. The House bill has been sponsored by 171 Democrats. The companion Senate bill (S. 2918) has 28 Democrat senators as cosponsors. If the bill were to pass it could be used to overturn previous Supreme Court decisions, such as Hobby Lobby, that relied on RFRA.

Other posts in this series:

Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre • Out-of-Wedlock Births • Bethel Church Movement • Christian Hymns • Hurricanes • Infertility • The STD Crisis • Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) • Russian President Vladimir Putin • Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh • MS-13 • Wicca and Modern Witchcraft • Jerusalem • Christianity in Korea • Creation of Modern Israel • David Koresh and the Branch Davidians • Rajneeshees • Football • The Opioid Epidemic (Part II) • The Unification Church • Billy Graham • Frederick Douglass • Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 • Winter Olympics • The ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders •  Events and Discoveries in 2017 • Christmas Traditions • Sexual Misconduct • Lutheranism • Jewish High Holy Days • Nation of Islam • Slave Trade • Solar Eclipses • Alcohol Abuse in America • History of the Homeschooling Movement • Eugenics • North Korea • Ramadan • Black Hebrew Israelites • Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease •  Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State

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