Religious Freedom Restoration Act: Summary

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is a 1993 federal act that defines some protections for the freedom of religion in the United States. This lesson will explore the Act and some of the controversies that have arisen with it.

Origins of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Should a business have the right to deny service to a customer who disagrees with their religious beliefs? Should it be a company owner's decision whether contraception is covered in their health insurance plan? Would your opinion change if the employees ask for insurance that includes all possible abortion services? Or, what if the customer wants to marry his or her same-sex partner? Ultimately, these questions ask who has the right to decide when a person's freedom to practice his or her beliefs is protected and when it becomes discriminatory. We will learn about this idea in the context of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In 1990, there was a U.S. Supreme Court case, Employment Division v. Smith, in which two men were fired for negligence because they had used an illegal hallucinogenic drug during a religious worship service as part of the Native American Church. They were then denied unemployment benefits. Although the case was originally about being fired, it became a lawsuit against the government when the state refused to grant them unemployment benefits. Does the state need to grant an exemption to the normal unemployment laws (which prohibit giving unemployment in cases when someone is negligent at work and is fired) for cases that involve a religious reason for the negligence?

Ultimately, the Court said that the state had the right to make its own unemployment laws, and was justified in refusing these men on the grounds of use of illegal drugs at work. Most importantly, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a law does not need to show a 'compelling interest' - some vital reason that justifies restricting your right to practice your religious freedom. If the law isn't otherwise about religious activity, practicing your religion without government interference is constitutionally protected under the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment. In other words, this particular example was about unemployment benefits, not a restriction of religious worship, so it did not require the compelling interest test.

seal of the supreme court

Congress Passes RFRA

Unhappy with the decision in Employment Division v. Smith, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993 to mandate a compelling interest test. This prohibits the government from creating restrictions on how you can practice your religion unless there is a compelling state interest for that restriction. The Act allowed individuals to sue the government if they believe that their religious rights are violated by the government.

There are several parts to this Act:

  • It allows for a restriction of free exercise if a compelling state interest exists.
  • This restriction must be the least prohibitive way of achieving that compelling interest.
  • It should not be understood to interpret the First Amendment in any way.
  • And finally, it is acceptable to grant government money (or deny that money) to any person or group, as long as it does not otherwise violate the Act.

RFRA was amended in 1997 in the wake of the Court's decision in City of Boerne v. Flores, which determined that it applies only to federal laws. Since this decision, many states have passed versions of RFRA that extend a similar restriction to their own laws.

Examples of RFRA Violations

A person may object to a law on the grounds of RFRA for many reasons. For example, some people are required to cover their hair, grow a beard, or wear long sleeves as part of their religious beliefs. If a person wants to serve as a police officer, he or she may sue their employer under RFRA if the Department refuses to allow them to work because they are wearing a yarmulke or hajib (types of head coverings in the Jewish and Muslim faiths).

RFRA in State Law

As mentioned, RFRA does not apply to state law. However, many states are concerned that their own laws may impose a burden on individuals' exercise of their beliefs. As a result, several states have passed new RFRA legislation or are in the process of considering it.

In 2014 and 2015, some states were criticized for their versions of RFRA. In one example, a bakery refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple's wedding. They argued that it would condone behavior that their religion prohibits. LGBT groups responded that it allows people to discriminate against gays and lesbians without consequences. Cases such as this are often taken to the courts.

Same-sex wedding cake

RFRA Cases

Several Supreme Court cases have helped refine our understanding of RFRA, setting restrictions on when and how it can be interpreted for specific circumstances:

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