The Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Lewis Stead

Last November, President Clinton signed The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, one of the most important pieces of legislation on religious freedom in our country's history. The Act restored a standard for deciding religious freedom cases that had been changed by the Supreme Court in 1990.

The case tchain-storenvolved two Native Americans who were employed as drug addiction counselors. They were members of the Native American Church, a group that mixes traditional native practices with Christianity. Part of their religion is the use of the hallucinogenic plant peyote as a central sacrament. Since peyote is an illegal drug of the type they were supposed to counsel against, the two persons were fired from their jobs.

They sued, citing religious discrimination, arguing that the firing was improper and they were therefore eligible for unemployment benefits. The case eventually made it to the Supreme Court. However, the result had very little to do with Native American religion, drugs, or unemployment benefits, but dealt with issues central to the religious freedom of all Americans.

In cases such as religious freedom, there is little in the way of legislation, and therefore the Court's actions are based in previous decisions. The prevailing decision subscribed to the test of "compelling government interest." This test would be applied by the court (and by lower courts) to all cases where laws infringe upon people's religious freedom. The notion of the "compelling interest" test is that in order for the government to interfere with one's religious freedom, it must prove it has an overriding reason for doing so. This test is one of the most strict limitations on governmental power. It is not a standard which allows the government to put aside religious liberty on a casual basis. Compelling interest usually involves cases where other persons rights must be weighed in the balance. Compelling interest has been found, for example, in cases of the Christian Science Church withholding important medical treatment from children--the notion being that the government has a compelling interest in protecting underage children who do not understand the implications of their parents actions or decisions.

This is not an uncommon test for constitutional rights cases and it generally provided religious freedom, while granting leeway for common sense. In her concurring opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, argued that there was a clear compelling interest in not paying persons as drug counselors who used some of the very same drugs they were counseling others against. This seemed a quite sensible route for the court to take, even if it stood on the dubious ground of equating religious use of drugs with recreational use.

However, this was not the way the court decided. Rather, the majority opinion eliminated the compelling interest test and established a precedent that if a law was "otherwise valid," religious belief or practice provided no relief from it. The only case in which a law could be overturned on religious freedom grounds would be if its intent was to actively discriminate (i.e., the law would have to be specifically crafted to deny religious freedom and serve no other purpose). It's a testimony to intolerance that during the last three years one such law was found that met this test. A Florida law, banning animal sacrifices, was struck down since it was obviously aimed at a local Santerian group and serve no other purpose.

In the case of the drug counselors, drug prohibition laws were not crafted as a way of interfering with their religious freedom, so their appeal was rejected. One other reaction to the decision affected the Amish, who for religious grounds do not use advanced technology. The use horsedrawn buggies, and traditionally have been granted some relief from traffic and road regulations on the grounds of religious freedom. However, under the Smith decision (since traffic laws were "otherwise valid") the Amish were liable to prosecution. While not pursued, technically, a church serving communion (or blot) could have been found in violation of the law unless it had a liquor license, although some states explicitly exclude religious services from their alcohol regulations.

The religious community was shocked and outraged. Few believed that a new precedent so hostile to religion could have been set. A bill was crafted and introduced which became known as The Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It's purpose was simple. It returned, through legislation, the standard of Judicial review to that of "compelling government interest" and it also instructed the courts that when a law did meet this test, it should be enforced in the manner least damaging to the needs of believers.

Considering how basic such a bill was to religious freedom in this country, it took surprisingly long to pass. Anti-abortion fanatics were afraid that religious freedom could be used to argue in favor of abortion rights. For example, it was cited by one objector that many religions have prohibitions against suicide and this could be used as an argument for a woman to abort a pregnancy that would otherwise kill her. Ironically, extremists on the pro-choice side provided even stronger opposition, being fearful that religious freedom grounds could be used to overturn the convictions of violent anti-abortion protesters. Some prison officials argued that religious freedom requests could be used to make ridiculous demands on the prison system. In fact, one creative group of prisoners had argued (unsuccessfully) that their "religion" required gourmet meals served with cognac. However, the compelling interest test had been in place for years and not allowed any of these abuses to exist in the past previously and there was no reason to believe that it would in the future.

It's extremely important to note who was not arguing against this bill, but was rather supporting it. The passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act represented a large coalition of virtually every religious denomination in our nation, including virtually the entire Christian right. This is an important thing to remember amid the usual Pagan hysteria about "fundamentalists." Virtually every Christian denomination in the country lined up behind the Native American Church members in the initial case and in lobbying for the passage of the RFRA. It was supported by a bipartisan coalition, passed by a near unanimous vote, and quickly signed. It's important to look at how wide a breadth of religious and political forces supported this legislation that will eventually be of greatest benefit to unpopular minority religions such as our own. While Christianity may never comfortably coexist with Heathenry, they are far from our most powerful enemies. The Smith case and the RFRA, as with most religious freedom cases, were not ones of one religion against the other, but one of religion besieged by a secular mentality that saw religion more as a hobby that could be put aside for the public convenience than as a central part of human existence.