Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Religious Freedom Restoration Act

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (also known as RFRA) is a 1993 United States federal law aimed at preventing laws which substantially burden a person's free exercise of their religion. The bill was introduced by Howard McKeon of California and Dean Gallo of New Jersey on March 11, 1993.


The law reinstated the Sherbert Test, mandating that strict scrutiny be used when determining if the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, guaranteeing religious freedom, has been violated. In this, the court must first determine whether the person has a claim involving a sincere religious belief, and whether the government action is a substantial burden on the person’s ability to act on that belief; if these two elements are established, then the government must prove that it is acting in furtherance of a compelling state interest, and that it has pursued that interest in the manner least restrictive, or least burdensome, to religion.


The Free Exercise Clause states that Congress shall not pass laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion. In the 1960s, the Supreme Court interpreted this as banning laws which burdened a person's exercise of religion (e.g. Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963); Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972)). But in the 1980s the Court began to allow legislation that incidentally prohibited religiously mandatory activities as long as the ban was "generally applicable" to all citizens. The key case was Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), in which the Court upheld the state of Oregon's refusal to give unemployment benefits to two Native Americans fired from their jobs at a rehab clinic after testing positive for mescaline, the main psychoactive compound in the peyote cactus, which they used in a religious ceremony.

In response, both liberal (like the ACLU) and conservative groups (like the Traditional Values Coalition) joined forces to support RFRA, which would reinstate the Sherbert Test, overturning laws if "religious exercise is substantially burdened" by them, unless the law is the "least restrictive means" of furthering a compelling state interest. The act passed the House unanimously and the Senate 97 to 3 and was signed into law by U.S. President Bill Clinton.


In 1997, part of this act was overturned by the United States Supreme Court because it overstepped Congress's power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio wanted to enlarge a church in Boerne, Texas. But a Boerne ordinance protected the church as a historic landmark and did not permit it to be torn down. The church sued, citing RFRA, and in the resulting case, City of Boerne v. Flores, , the Supreme Court struck down the RFRA, stating that Congress had stepped beyond their power of enforcement. In response to the Boerne ruling, Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in 2000.

However, most scholars believed RFRA still applied to federal acts (the U.S. Congress can modify the interpretation of their own laws, after all) and a number of states have passed so-called mini-RFRAs, applying the rule to the laws of their own state.

This interpretation was confirmed on February 21, 2006, as the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the government in Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal, , which involved the use of an otherwise illegal substance in a religious ceremony, decisively stating that the federal government must show a compelling state interest in restricting religious freedom.

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