The Religious Freedom Restoration Act

In 1993, a broad and diverse coalition of religious liberty advocates welcomed passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a law that resulted from several years of hard work and reflected a shared commitment to protecting the free exercise of religion in America. RFRA created a statutory right that would apply broadly to ensure that government did not substantially burden the exercise of religion without a compelling reason for doing so.

The story of RFRA began in 1990, when the U.S. Supreme Court shocked many religious and civil liberty advocates by announcing in Employment Division v. Smith that the First Amendment is not violated when neutral, generally applicable laws conflict with religious practices. The new standard generated widespread concern that it threatened minority and mainstream religious groups alike, leaving them vulnerable to potentially onerous government burdens on religion. View a timeline of RFRA

In response, an extraordinary coalition of organizations — chaired by the Baptist Joint Committee — coalesced to push for federal legislation that would “restore” the pre-Smith compelling interest standard. Their bill became law when President Bill Clinton signed RFRA on November 16, 1993. Because the Supreme Court later held that RFRA was unconstitutional as applied to the states, many states have enacted similar legislation to constrain state government actions.

Coalition members recognized at the time that RFRA provided a high standard for all free exercise claims without regard to any particular religious practice or desired outcome, and that it would produce different results according to the facts of individual disputes. Still, common ground lay in the belief that all Americans have a right to exercise their religion.

For more on RFRA:

Visit our page dedicated to a symposium marking the 20th anniversary of RFRA, including panel discussions on its beginnings, application to the contraceptive mandate, and future challenges to the exercise of religion in a diverse society.

The BJC’s publication for the 20th anniversary of RFRA has more information on the journey to pass RFRA, including a timeline and remarks from President Clinton at the signing ceremony.

BJC Executive Director Brent Walker remembers the origins of RFRA.

BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman examines RFRA on its 20th anniversary.

Walker’s primer on the governmental accommodation of religion in the Journal of Church and State (2007).

Hollman reviews the impact of the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision bolstering RFRA (O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal v. Gonzales)


States map 2015 for blog
Articles on state RFRA legislation:

BJC blog: State RFRA bill tracker

BJC statement: Indiana and Arkansas RFRA (April 1, 2015)

Walker: Do states need religious freedom legislation?
(February 2015)

Hollman: Utah compromise worth consideration (April 2015)

Hollman: Concerns about discrimination doom Arizona legislation (March 2014)

Mississippi RFRA signed into law (April 2014)


Special BJC publication

for RFRA’s anniversary in 2013

RFRA Book.indd

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