For decades, the Baptist Joint Committee has been a trusted resource on legislation affecting religious freedom for members of Congress, their staffs and other religious and civil liberties groups.
Our work may include monitoring congressional activity relating to church-state matters, analyzing legislation, leading congressional staff briefings on the need for or implications of a bill, contacting legislative offices directly on behalf of the BJC or contacting constituents about a pressing matter up for a vote in their state. We often coordinate our advocacy efforts with coalitions of other groups where we find common ground.
The BJC’s Center for Religious Liberty, located just across the street from the Hart Senate Office Building and two blocks from the U.S. Capitol, provides a strategic location for these efforts.
Our legislative work is primarily focused at the federal level, but it also includes state and local endeavors. Recent efforts include speaking out against federal government funding of houses of worship, supporting the right of teachers to wear religious garb, and opposing state constitutional amendments that would harm religious liberty, such as those that would repeal prohibitions on state funding of religion.
Here are a few examples of legislation that we have supported previously and continue to champion.
Religious Freedom Restoration Act
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening religious expression without a compelling reason. After a 1990 Supreme Court decision left religious practice more vulnerable to government intrusion, a broad group of organizations formed a coalition — chaired by BJC General Counsel Oliver “Buzz” Thomas — to work toward passage of the legislation, which reflects a shared commitment to protecting the free exercise of religion in America. A unanimous Supreme Court strictly enforced RFRA’s standard in Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal (2006). Click here for more about RFRA, including a recap of an event commemorating its 20th anniversary.
State Religious Freedom Acts
The Supreme Court held in City of Boerne v. Flores (1997) that the federal RFRA prohibiting government from substantially burdening religion without a compelling reason only applies to the federal government and is unconstitutional as applied to state and local governments. Many states have enacted similar legislation to ensure state government actors are held to this higher standard. While several became law in the late 1990s, a new wave of RFRAs came in the 2010s. As of April 2014, 18 states have state RFRAs, and another dozen states interpret their state constitutions to provide similar protections.
Departures in legislative language from the federal RFRA have taken a number of forms. Some proposed measures only say government cannot burden religion, omitting the important modifier that the burden must be “substantial.” A few have defined “burden” in novel ways as including indirect burdens such as withholding benefits or exclusion from government programs. This language, not found in the federal RFRA, raises concerns that, in addition to inviting litigation, it will allow government support of religious entities and lead to other conflicts with important no-establishment safeguards.
A recent spate of state legislative proposals has come on the heels of changes in laws regarding same-sex marriage, a context that makes these statutes more controversial. The BJC continues to support the federal RFRA standard because we believe religious freedom in the bold American constitutional tradition means religious freedom for the broadest range of religious claims, including ones that are not well-understood or well-liked. For more, read BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman’s “Free exercise standards increasingly debated” (April 2013) and “Concerns about discrimination doom Arizona legislation” (April 2014).
Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act
The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) is a federal law designed to increase protections of religious assemblies and institutions from zoning and historic landmark laws that substantially interfere with their free exercise. It similarly protects the religious rights of prisoners and other persons in government custody. The BJC led a diverse coalition of religious and civil liberties groups in supporting RLUIPA, and a unanimous Congress enacted the measure. Click here for more on RLUIPA.