The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) reached an important milestone in recent days – 20 years.
At a Capitol Hill event sponsored by the Christian Legal Society in honor of this anniversary, a number of key leaders reflected on the significance of RFRA at its initial enactment and continuing today. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) opened the session and were followed by Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), Chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), one of the sponsors of RFRA when it was originally being considered in Congress.
RFRA was birthed after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Employment Division v. Smith decision in 1990 startled many religious liberty advocates. The reasoning of the Smith decision, which ruled against a Native American constitutional claim for using peyote in religious ceremonies, effectively set a new, broad, and much lower standard for the First Amendment’s Free Exercise of Religion clause to apply. J. Brent Walker, Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said, “the U.S. Supreme Court effectively neutered the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause by giving government the ability to enforce generally applicable laws that would indirectly burden someone’s exercise of religion.” A broad 63-member coalition with members spanning far across religious and political lines formed to push Congress to pass new protections against a substantial burden on religious expression.
After several years working its way through the legislative process, RFRA was passed unanimously in the House of Representatives and by a 97-3 vote in the Senate in 1993. On November 16, 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the bill in the White House Rose Garden. After noting the friendships and new trust formed across religious and ideological lines by members of the coalition “which shows, I suppose, that the power of God is such that even in the legislative process miracles can happen,” President Clinton then declared:
The free exercise of religion has been called the first freedom – that which originally sparked the development of the full range of the Bill of Rights. Our founders cared a lot about religion…. they well understood what could happen to this country, how both religion and government could be perverted if there were not some space created and some protection provided. They knew that religion helps to give our people the character without which a democracy cannot survive. They knew that there needed to be a space of freedom between government and people of faith that otherwise government might usurp.
At that ceremony, President Clinton concluded by calling on people of faith to “bring our values back to the table of American discourse to heal our troubled land.”
By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations
Published: November 22, 2013