What Is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act? - Law and Daily Life
Law & Daily Life - The FindLaw Life, Family and Workplace Law Blog

What Is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act?

What is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act? It's at the center of two Obamacare-related U.S. Supreme Court cases scheduled for oral argument Tuesday.

While the First Amendment guarantees persons the free exercise of religion, there are other legal protections for religious rights -- including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which has been the subject of recent court cases.

So what exactly is the RFRA?

Passed to Protect Religious Liberty

Congress passed the RFRA in 1993 in response to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Employment Division v. Smith.

The Smith case involved a Native American church in Oregon that was denied unemployment benefits for because of members' use of peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, as part of a religious ceremony. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that despite the protections of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, Oregon could legally deny those church members unemployment benefits because of their peyote use. This worried lawmakers about the future of religious freedom in the workplace.

The RFRA applies when a law "substantially burdens" an individual or religious group's free exercise of religion. For the burdensome law to apply to the person or group, the government must show it has a "compelling interest" in applying the law, and that the law uses the "least restrictive means" to achieve that interest. (This standard was used in religious exercise cases prior to Smith; RFRA's purpose was to continue to apply this standard -- even for laws which apply generally to all persons.)

Laws like the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, are now being tested by claims under RFRA. But while the RFRA applies to individuals and religious groups, does it also apply to corporations?

Can Corporations Sue Under the RFRA?

Two corporations that object to Obamacare's contraceptive mandate have made claims under the RFRA, alleging Obamacare violates a corporation's right to free exercise of religion.

On Tuesday, craft-store chain Hobby Lobby plans to argue before the High Court that its religious freedom is burdened by the requirements of Obamacare, and that the company has a right to judicial remedy under the RFRA. Lawyers for Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a kitchen-cabinet manufacturer, are expected to make similar arguments.

Federal courts have disagreed about whether corporations are "people" intended to be protected by the RFRA -- a question the U.S. Supreme Court is now poised to consider. The Court has previously affirmed that corporations have free speech rights (see Citizens United), but can a corporation really have religious freedom rights?

Justice are being asked to determine whether the RFRA applies to corporations, small closely-held companies, or merely to a company's individual executives and employees. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision may change how we view religious freedom and the RFRA for years to come.

Related Resources: