Religious Freedom Restoration Acts: Federal Legislation

Reference: Religious Tolerance


During the 1960’s and 1970’s, a series of decisions by the US Supreme Court supported individuals’ religious freedom by limiting the authority of governments to pass restrictive legislation. Two important examples were Sherbert v. Verner in 1963 and Wisconsin v. Yoder in 1972.

During the late 1980’s, the US Supreme Court’s philosophy shifted in the direction of allowing governments to restrict religious freedom, as long as the limitations applied equally to all faiths. The US Supreme Court decision of Employment Division v. Smith in 1990 was a key decision in this area. The court ruled that native religious use of peyote (a hallucinogenic drug) is not a constitutionally protected religious right. Some native religious traditions had been using peyote in their religious rituals for millennia.

Over 60 religious organizations and civil liberties groups combined to form the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion to fight this trend. They represented religious liberals and conservatives, and included Native American spiritual groups and Christian, Humanist, Jewish, Muslim, Scientology and Sikh religious organizations. The coalition brought together longtime enemies, like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Concerned Women for America; the Americans United for Separation of Church & State and the Traditional Values Coalition. The group continues to exist today; it has expanded to include 72 very different organizations who often have opposite views on almost every topic.

They promoted the federal Religions Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which required governments to:

bullet Refrain from limiting religious freedom, unless they have a compelling societal reason for doing so.
bullet Select the least intrusive method to achieve their goal, if they need to restrict religious freedom.

American Atheists were one of the few groups which opposed RFRA. They complained that it gave “special rights” to churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other sectarian organizations.

The House of Representatives, in a rare move, unanimously approved the bill on 1993-OCT-27. The Senate passed the bill to 97 to 3 with no abstentions on 1993-NOV-3. President Clinton signed it into law on 1993-NOV-16.

Dozens of cases that have made effective use of this law. But in other lawsuits, low level courts found that the act was unconstitutional. One case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio wanted to demolish part of a church in Boerne, TX. The town refused, because the building local historic ordinances required that the building be maintained. The church sued under RFRA, in Boerne v. Flores, and lost. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997-JUN that RFRA was unconstitutional because it exceeded the authority of Congress.

RFRA has since been reborn at the state level, where a number of laws patterned after the federal legislation have been enacted. A federal bill to replace RFRA, the Religious Liberty Protection Act, passed the House but died in the Senate. A stripped-down bill, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), was passed by Congress and signed into law on 2000-SEP-22. It restricted governments from interfering with the religious use of land. It also guaranteed religious freedom to inmates of institutions. In 2003-NOV, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared that the RLUIPA law had “the primary effect of advancing religion.” They thus found that it violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which draws a wall between church and state. 

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