By BJC Staff Reports
Twenty years after the landmark Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was signed into law, a day-long symposium examined the current state of religious liberty in America. Some of the country’s leading experts gathered at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 7 to discuss the history and impact of the legislation and current challenges to religious freedom.
After a 1990 Supreme Court decision left religious practice more vulnerable to government intrusion, a broad group of organizations led by the BJC formed a coalition to work toward passage of the legislation, which reflects a shared commitment to protecting the free exercise of religion in America. President Bill Clinton signed RFRA on Nov. 16, 1993.
Two decades later, opinions about RFRA vary. Some prior advocates now express concerns about its application in particular contexts, such as its interaction with civil rights and health care laws, while others argue that RFRA has not lived up to its promise of providing meaningful protection for religious liberty for all. The anniversary provided an avenue for reflection on the current state of the law, using RFRA as a lens for highlighting the importance of a shared understanding of religious freedom.
The day’s events included three panel discussions as well as keynote addresses from two leaders in the fight for RFRA: former BJC General Counsel Oliver “Buzz” Thomas, who chaired the coalition, and Douglas Laycock, one of the primary drafters of the legislation who is a professor of law and religious studies at the University of Virginia School of Law.
BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman, who led the event’s planning efforts, noted that much of the legal landscape has changed since 1993. “The symposium offered an opportunity to revisit some of the most significant developments in free exercise protection and to have a thoughtful discussion about continuing challenges,” she said.
“Restored or Endangered? The State of Free Exercise of Religion in America” was sponsored by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Christian Legal Society, American Jewish Committee, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute.
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