1993 November 16

Congress Passes Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)


The 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed on this day, was a Congressional reaction to the Supreme Court decision in Employment Decision v. Smith, decided on April 17, 1990, in which the Court held that it was permissible for the State of Oregon to deny Alfred Smith unemployment benefits because he used peyote. Smith argued that he used peyote as part of a traditional Native American religious ritual. The Smith decision provoked a strong reaction from religious leaders of many faiths, along with civil libertarians, because of the intrusion on religious practices. Congress passed RFRA to ensure legal protection of religious practices (see the text, below).

The Supreme Court, however, declared RFRA an unconstitutional extension of Congress’ enforcement powers in Boerne v. Flores on June 25, 1997 in a zoning enforcement case that did not address the issues of religious liberty.

The law remains in effect, and was the basis for the religious freedom challenge to the Affordable Care Act in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby on June 30, 2014.

RFRA: The Congress finds that(1) the framers of the Constitution, recognizing free exercise of religion as an unalienable right, secured its protection in the First Amendment to the Constitution; (2) laws “neutral” toward religion may burden religious exercise as surely as laws intended to interfere with religious exercise; (3) governments should not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification. 

Learn more: Carolyn Long, Religious Freedom and Indian Rights: The Case of Oregon v. Smith (2000)
Learn more about the free exercise of religion: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/category/religion

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