9 Things You Should Know About the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

"The government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone’s free exercise of religion."

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. 

 

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.

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