State Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (‘RFRAs’): What are they and why are they needed?


Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) refers to a state law that mirrors the federal statute by the same name and which prohibits the government from burdening religious exercise unless it meets a high level of legal scrutiny. Chuck Schumer, Ted Kennedy, and then-State Senator Barack Obama are just a few examples of politicians who have voted for a RFRA at the state or federal level.

Where did the federal RFRA come from?

Many correctly saw the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith[1] as an erosion of religious liberty rights and threat to our freedom to live out our personal beliefs. In response to Smith, a coalition of groups from across the religious, political, and legal spectrum—from the Southern Baptists to the ACLU—came together to urge Congress to pass a law restoring strong protections for free exercise claims. The 1993 federal RFRA was sponsored by Chuck Schumer and Ted Kennedy, was passed unanimously by the House and 97-3 by the Senate, and signed President Clinton.

So why are state RFRAs needed today?

In 1997 the Supreme Court ruled in City of Boerne v. Flores[2] that the federal RFRA did not apply to state and local government action. Since then, state RFRAs have been needed to protect against undue state and local government interference in religious exercise. Twenty states have responded as of this writing,[3] and another 11 states have similar protections under state court precedent. The law is needed in the remaining states to protect people whose sincere beliefs are in danger of being unnecessarily burdened by the government.
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