Twenty-Eight Years Later, RFRA Must Be Used as a Shield, Not a Sword

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Religious freedom is a core American value. The First Amendment grants us the freedom to believe as we choose, with respect for the autonomy of others to do the same. But while certain constitutional truths may be “self-evident,” they are not self-executing. To ensure the protections of the First Amendment are honored in practice, additional protections have been established to protect both faith and freedom in this country.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act Bolsters True Religious Freedom

This November 16th, we recognize the 28th anniversary of the enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a law designed to protect the right of religious minorities to freely exercise their religious beliefs. RFRA prohibits the federal government from “substantially burnden[ing]” a person’s religious exercise unless there is a “compelling government interest.” Then, the government must use the least restrictive means possible to further that interest. This law was an important tool to ensure religious minorities are able to exercise their religious beliefs.

RFRA Should be Used as a Sheild to Protect, Not a Sword to Cause Harm

But in recent years, bad faith interpretations of RFRA have distorted its purpose to justify discrimination and grant individuals and businesses the authority to impose their religious beliefs on others. Decades of systematic efforts by the Religious Right, galvanized by the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (which held that RFRA requires closely-held corporations with religious opposition to contraception to be exempt from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate), have co-opted the original intent of the law and turned it into a license to legally discriminate and impose religious beliefs on others.  

RFRA has been cited by those seeking exemptions to civil rights laws, to exclude LGBTQ+ people and members of religious minorities from federally funded social services, and to impede justice in child labor and abuse cases. And, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, RFRA has even been used to undermine public health measures designed to keep our communities safe. These claims often hurt the very people RFRA was designed to protect, undermining the First Amendment in the process.

Looking Forward, RFRA Must be Restored to Its Original Purpose

Twenty-eight years later, more must be done to ensure the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is not used as a tool for discrimination and harm. That is why Interfaith Alliance joined a broad coalition of over 100 faith-based and civil rights groups in welcoming the reintroduction of the Do No Harm Act, a top legislative priority for Interfaith Alliance. The Do No Harm Act clarifies the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to protect religious freedom while ensuring it cannot be misused as a weapon of discrimination.

True religious freedom protects the freedom to believe as we choose, without fear of discrimination or harm. In an increasingly diverse nation, it is imperative that our laws make clear that freedom of belief does not include a license to discriminate. The legacy of RFRA must be an inclusive vision of religious freedom; one that protects freedom of belief as well as those vulnerable to discrimination and harm.

Learn about Interfaith Alliance’s efforts to advance true religious freedom.