President Bill Clinton signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

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Nov 21, 2018 by Alyssa Duvall

When Democrats Fought For Religious Liberty: 3 Things To Remember About The Religious Freedom Restoration Act

It was twenty-five years ago this week that Democrat President Bill Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) into law, at the time saying "we can never be too vigilant" in protecting the free exercise of religion from government intrusion. Times and beliefs in America have certainly changed, although the law hasn't—not yet. 

Here are the top three points to remember about this incredible religious liberty law as its safety becomes ever more threatened in a society increasingly hostile to religious liberty.

  1. RFRA actually has its origins in the reaction to an unexpected 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

    The case of Employment Division v. Smith made its way to the SCOTUS after Alfred Leo Smith, a member of the American Native Church and counselor at a private drug rehab clinic, was deemed ineligible for unemployment benefits due to his use of peyote, a powerful and illegal drug, in a religious ritual.

    The Court decision clarified that the First Amendment is not violated when religiously neutral laws which apply to every citizen happen to conflict with religious practices. In other words, Smith's use of an illegal drug for genuine religious reasons was not considered protected under the amendment.

    Justice Antonin Scalia, argued for a potential slippery slope if one's religious beliefs were to excuse him from obeying such laws. Allowing exceptions to every state law or regulation which could possibly affect religious practice, he wrote, “would open the prospect of constitutionally required exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind.”

  2. In spite of serious differences, unlikely forces united to combat the ruling.

    A group called the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion formed to lobby Congress to change the law. The coalition was made up of a counterintuitively diverse mix of secular and religious groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Concerned Women for America, the American Humanist Association, Justice Fellowship, and the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (now the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission).

    These groups were able to cooperate "across the aisle," so to speak, to work against a common enemy: the threat to personal liberty. In fact, it was New York's perennial senator, then-representative, Chuck Schumer, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, who introduced the RFRA in March of 1993.

  3. The RFRA is in danger in today's political climate.

    In the years since the RFRA was passed, many of its previous supporters, most notably Hillary Clinton and the ACLU, have expressed concerns about the manner in which the law has been invoked and how it might be invoked in the future.

    Last year, the "Do No Harm" Act was introduced in Congress to make the law inapplicable when religious beliefs conflict with a variety of issues, especially abortion or gender identity. The House bill has been sponsored by 171 Democrats, and its companion Senate bill (S. 2918) has 28 Democrat cosponsors.

    If the bill gains momentum and passes, it could be used to overturn previous Supreme Court decisions, such as the Hobby Lobby decision, that relied on RFRA, which exempted private employers from covering abortifacient contraceptives for their female employees.


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