Clinton Signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act Into Law On This Date
How do you feel about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act on its anniversary?
On November 16, 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law to prevent the federal government from enacting laws that inhibit the ability of people to freely practice their religion.
RFRA was introduced in response to a Supreme Court ruling in a religious freedom case. Since its enactment the law’s application has been shaped by several subsequent SCOTUS rulings, including the Hobby Lobby decision which gave corporations religious freedom protections. And similar RFRA laws have passed in individual states, such as in Indiana where RFRA was enacted by former Governor and current Vice President Mike Pence in 2015.
Why did it come up?
The public outcry generated by a 1990 Supreme Court decision in Employment Division v. Smith helped lay the groundwork for RFRA’s eventual introduction. The case centered on the state of Oregon’s decision to deny unemployment benefits to two workers who had been fired from their job at a drug rehabilitation clinic because they’d taken peyote in religious ceremonies as members of the Native American Church.
The Court held in Smith that states are able to prohibit religious peyote use and that religiously neutral laws applied generally aren’t a violation of an individual’s First Amendment rights. This was a departure from earlier precedent set in Sherbert v. Verner and Wisconsin v. Yoder which led to the "Sherbert Test" — which is used to determine if the government has burdened an individual’s free exercise of religion. However, if that burden serves a compelling state interest or no alternatives exist that would avoid the infringement while still achieving the government’s goal, then it is deemed constitutional.
After the Smith ruling negated the Sherbert Test, lawmakers wanted to reinstate it. In the House, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was introduced by then-Rep. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) — who is now Senate minority leader. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) drafted a companion bill in the upper chamber in March, 1993.
The House passed Schumer’s bill on a voice vote in May, while the Senate approved it in October on a 97-3 vote with former Sens. Robert Byrd (D-WV), Jesse Helms (R-NC), and Harlan Mathews (D-TN) the lone dissenters. President Bill Clinton then signed the bill into law on November 16, 1993.
What did it do?
RFRA reinstated the Sherbert Test and mandated that courts use strict scrutiny when determining whether religious freedom protections under the First Amendment have been violated. In the bill, Congress stated that religiously neutral laws can impose as significant a burden as a law that was specifically designed to interfere with religion. As a result, RFRA spells out that:
"Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability."
RFRA did include an exception that would only be granted if two conditions are both met. First, the burden imposed imposed on individuals wanting to practice their religion must be necessary for the "furtherance of a compelling government interest." Using strict scrutiny, this means that a government interest is only “compelling” when it involves non-routine matters and relates to core constitutional issues. The second condition holds that for the rule to be permitted, it must further the government interest in the least restrictive way possible.
What has its impact been?
In 1997, just four years after RFRA’s passage, the Supreme Court ruled in City of Boerne v. Flores that RFRA couldn’t be applied to state laws. This led 21 states to enact their own versions of the federal law since 1993.
The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of applying RFRA to federal laws in a 2006 case, which set the stage for its 2014 ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. In the landmark 5-4 ruling, SCOTUS exempted privately-held corporations (i.e. not publicly traded) that have religious objections from the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to cover contraceptives for their female employees.
The Court struck down the mandate after finding that it wasn’t the "least restrictive" way to ensure access to contraceptives. While the ruling didn’t address whether corporations are protected by the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause, it marked the first time that a corporation’s claim of religious belief was recognized by the Court.
The application of the federal RFRA to corporations in Hobby Lobby had an impact on the way Indiana drafted its own RFRA in 2015. Indiana’s version, signed into law by Mike Pence, defines any corporation (for profit or nonprofit) that’s driven by religious belief that can sue and be sued as a person, for the purpose of law. Critics claimed that this broad wording could allow businesses to refuse service to same-sex couples, which led to the enactment of a separate bill to protect LGBT customers and employees, though critics still view the protections as insufficient.
In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission that the state of Colorado violated the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution when the commission charged a cakemaker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding with civil rights violations. The lone dissenters were Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: National Archives / Public Domain)
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