In the United States, the Freedom of Religion is a constitutionally given right within the first amendment. As the years change and the country developed, things had to change and additions were made to our rights. One of those changes happened to be the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, “RFRA.”
The backstory for the act is a case called Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith [Emp’t Division, Dep’t of Human Res. of Or. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (U.S. 1990)]. Two Native Americans, who worked as private drug rehabilitation counselors, ingested peyote as part of religious ceremonies conducted by the Native American Church and they were fired. The issue was whether counselors’ ability to exercise their religion was outweighed by the by the fact peyote use was a crime and vice versa. The State of Oregon won on the basis that the drug laws were “non-discriminatory laws of general applicability.”
In response, Religious groups became concerned that this case would be cited as precedent for further regulation on common religious practices. They lobbied for legislative protection to Congress and in 1993 the RFRA was presented by Congressman Chuck Schumer as a scrutiny standard for Religious Organizations. The RFRA was meant to help protect religious freedoms from the government. The RFRA stated the government cannot do anything to impede religious liberty or inconvenience religious activities except for in extreme circumstances.
After the bill passed in 1993, the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the Act couldn’t be applied to states. Specifically, they were casting judgment on a case brought before them called The City of Boerne v Flores. [Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (5th Cir. 1997)] In the case, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had overstepped its constitutional powers by enacting the RFRA because Congress couldn’t determine the way in which states could enforce the RFRA’s restrictions. Because of Congress deciding the RFRA only applied to Federal Laws, not State Laws, many states passed their own RFRA legislation. Which leads us to today.
During recent times, the United States has been in the midst of a movement towards gay rights and reproductive rights for women. This applies to the RFRA specifically because in 2014 there was a landmark case having to deal with those issues. The case was Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. [Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U.S. (U.S. 2013)]. The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the RFRA in a way that made it so for-profit corporations are allowed to object to laws because of its owners religious beliefs. This led to many an outcry believing that the Hobby Lobby case would lead to discrimination against women and gays.
With the precedence set by that case many states revised their legislation. Mississippi enacted a state RFRA that many believe handed businesses the power to discriminate against their customers due to religious beliefs. As well as Indiana, whose recently enacted RFRA has been the subject of many a debate. Other states, such as our own state Michigan, have had RFRA legislation put before the counsel and have yet to be decided on.
So far people such as Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, and several celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Ashton Kutcher have expressed negative opinions about the RFRA bills being passed. Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle pulled a $40 million headquarters expansion from Indiana due to its RFRA. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray placed prohibitions on municipal employees traveling to Indiana on city funds, as well, due to the RFRA in Indiana.
But while there is great opposition to the RFRA bills being passed, defenders of the recent bills claim that the new RFRAs are not a means to legalize discrimination. Indiana Governor Mike Pence recently gave an interview stating he was, “proud to sign the religious freedom restoration act… This law does not give anyone a license to discriminate. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not give anyone the right to deny services.” And others like the Indiana Right to Life Organization, who tweeted on March 26 2015 that the “RFRA is an important bill to protect the religious freedom of Hoosiers who believe the right to life comes from God, not government”. Republican Senator for Texas Ted Cruz also tweeted March 30 2015 that “I’m proud to stand with Gov. @mike_pence for religious liberty, and I urge Americans to do the same.”
What is happening now will have an effect throughout American history. We will have to see how the act progresses and how the American Courts review it in future time. As for us, we will continue to update you as new situations arise.
And if you are interested in reading more about any of the above cases or interviews please see the source links below.
H.R.1308 – Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993
Mississippi RFRA Bill