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Why The Religious Freedom Restoration Act Is Vital

Why The Religious Freedom Restoration Act Is Vital

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) remains a singular achievement in this Nation’s long history of religious freedom. When Congress enacted RFRA in 1993 by overwhelming bipartisan majorities, it re-dedicated the Nation to religious liberty for all Americans.

RFRA’s Bipartisan Passage: President Clinton signed RFRA into law on November 16, 1993. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch and Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy together led the effort to pass RFRA in the Senate. The Senate passed RFRA by a vote of 97-3 on October 27, 1993, followed by a unanimous voice vote in the House on November 3.

The RFRA Coalition: In response to the Smith decision, a 68-member coalition of diverse religious and civil rights organizations (led by Christian Legal Society, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Jewish Congress, the Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism, and the American Civil Liberties Union, among other groups) coalesced to encourage Congress to restore substantive protection for religious liberty. RFRA restored the “compelling interest” test by once again placing the burden on the government to demonstrate that a law is compelling and unachievable by less restrictive means. Even though the “compelling interest” test is a high bar, the government has won many cases – perhaps even the majority of cases – brought under RFRA. RFRA’s critical role is that it requires the government to demonstrate that it actually has a compelling interest before it can force a citizen to choose between obeying his God or his government.

RFRA’s Remarkable Footprint: RFRA is a remarkable law because it reinforces three foundational commitments of American constitutionalism: a commitment to limited government, pluralism, and religious liberty. First, RFRA is the rare reminder that America’s government is a government of limited powers – a government that defers to its citizens’ religious liberty except in compelling circumstances. Second, by evenhandedly protecting religious freedom for all citizens, RFRA embodies American pluralism. Third, through its passage of RFRA, Congress re-dedicated the Nation to religious liberty for all Americans. Congress re-committed the Nation to the foundational principle that American citizens have the God-given right to live peaceably and undisturbed according to their religious beliefs. In RFRA, a Nation begun by immigrants seeking religious liberty renewed its pledge to be a perpetual sanctuary for all faiths.

CLS and RFRA’s 20th Anniversary: In observance of RFRA’s 20th anniversary, CLS co-sponsored two observances, one at the Newseum and one on Capitol Hill. The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, a co-sponsor of the Newseum event, prepared an excellent, concise history of the passage of RFRA.

Newseum Event

This symposium, held on November 7, 2013, was sponsored by CLS, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the American Jewish Committee, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and the Religious Freedom Center.

For the entire symposium “Restored or Endangered? The State of Free Exercise of Religion in America,” click here.

To watch the debate on RFRA and the HHS Mandate, click here.

Hill RFRA Observance

On November 20, 2013, Christian Legal Society hosted an event in observance of the 20th Anniversary of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the Canon Caucus Room. Opening remarks were made by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and additional remarks were made by Senator Orrin Hatch and Congressman Randy Forbes, Co-Chair of the Congressional Prayer Caucus.

The event featured a panel discussion among Marc Stern, General Counsel of the American Jewish Committee, Steve McFarland, Vice President and Chief Legal Officer of World Vision, Mark Chopko, former General Counsel to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Kim Colby, Senior Counsel, Christian Legal Society. The discussion revolved around how bipartisan support for religious liberty coalesced behind the Act which passed by bipartisan majorities in the Senate (97-3) and the House (unanimous voice vote), as well as its role as the preeminent federal protection for religious liberty. Click here to watch the Hill Observance.

The Faces of Free Exercise

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty produced a short but stellar documentary entitled The Faces of Free Exercise, in honor of the 20th anniversary of the passage of RFRA. Click here to watch the video.

RFRA Podcast

Kim Colby and Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, discussed the importance of RFRA in protecting American religious liberty. The Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance works to protect the religious freedom of faith-based service organizations through a multi-faith network of organizations to educate the public, train organizations and their lawyers, create policy alternatives that better protect religious freedom, and advocate to the federal administration and Congress on behalf of the rights of faith-based services. Click here to listen to the podcast.

General Healthcare Rights of Conscience

Wheaton College v. Sebelius - The Center filed an amicus brief in support of Wheaton College and Belmont Abbey College in their joint challenge to the "HHS Mandate." The Mandate is a federal regulation that requires employers to provide insurance coverage for Plan B and ella, which many regard as abortion-inducing drugs. While the Mandate exempts some "religious employers," the exemption is so narrow that these religious colleges do not qualify as "religious employers." - October 15, 2012 Read More >>

S.1467 - Also known as Amendment #1520 to S. 1813, Amendment #1520 is the "Respect for Rights of Conscience Act." The amendment would amend the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the 2010 health reform law) to protect rights of conscience. The amendment provides that mandated health plans need not include coverage for items or services contrary to the religious beliefs of the issuer, purchaser, or beneficiary of the plan. The amendment also allows health plans to safeguard healthcare providers’ rights of conscience. Please contact your senators to urge them to (1) ask Senator Reid to allow a vote on Amendment #1520 to S.1813 and (2) cosponsor and vote "yes" on Amendment #1520 to S. 183. - February 15, 2012

The President announced on February 10, 2012 that the Administration's previous policy would be modified by issuance of some future regulations.

The Obama Administration's refusal to reconsider its policy to coerce faith-based institutions to pay for abortion-inducing drugs - January 20, 2012

CLS and 62 other religious organizations sent a letter to President Obama asking that the federal government re-think its inadequate exemption for religious employers in the new federal health insurance regulations. The current definition fails to protect most faith-based ministries from having to provide insurance that covers abortion-inducing drugs.

The Department of Health and Human Services explicitly broadened "preventive services" to include mandated coverage of contraceptives, including abortion inducing drugs - August 3, 2011.

HR 1179 - Amendment to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (March 21, 2011) (bill to ensure that the 2010 health reform law will not force religious healthcare providers to provide abortions or other procedures in violation of conscience).

Letter from CLS, et al., to the House Judiciary Committee regarding health care workers' rights of conscience.

"A Step Backward for Freedom of Conscience" (March 1, 2011 article by Professor Michael McConnell on the Obama Administration's partial rescission of the Bush Administration's regulations regarding health care workers' rights of conscience.)

Department of Health & Human Services' Regulations adopted by the Bush Administration in 2009 to protect conscience rights of healthcare professionals; the Obama Administration recsinded in 2011 and replaced with these Regulations.

Comments of CLS and Fellowship of Christian Physician Assistants on the Department of Health & Human Services' Provider Conscience Regulations, 73 Fed. Reg. 50274-50285 (September 25, 2008)

Proposed Answer of Christian Medical Association, et al., in Connecticut v. U.S. (U.S. District Court of Conn.)

CLS amici curiae brief in Baxter, et al., v. Montana (Mont. Supreme Court)

CLS amici curiae brief in Stormans v. Selecky (9th Circuit)