WASHINGTON— The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which states that the government cannot burden religious practices without compelling justification, turned 25 last week but some conservatives are worried that a new crop of Democratic House members and future presidential administrations might seek to amend or repeal the law..
“Really, all three branches of government have the capacity to undermine” the RFRA, according to Gregory Baylor, director of the Center for Religious Schools.
“This current administration has been a bit of an outlier in its respect for RFRA… that guidance could disappear in the next administration.”
In addition to Democrats who control the House and could again control the Senate and White House, conservatives fear the RFRA could be in danger as a result of shifting public opinion.
On a panel at the conservative Heritage Foundation, a few individuals fighting for religious liberty conveyed their concern.
“I’m worried about the willingness by many Americans to give the government more authority restricting actions it doesn’t agree with,” said Asma Uddin, founding editor-in-chief at altmuslimah.com, a digital media site creating content about Muslim communities.
The fear held by many conservatives may be unfounded. Baylor cited the Equality Act, legislation introduced in the last Congress by Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., which aimed at protecting LGBTQ individuals from discrimination, as one example of an attack that’s looming against RFRA.
Cicilline said he plans to work with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to re-introduce the legislation in the first 100 days of the new Congress. But the legislation is unlikely to get beyond the Democratically-controlled House.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers passed the RFRA after two American Indians were fired for ingesting peyote as part of a religious ceremony. A unanimous House and near unanimous Senate, with only three senators opposed, sent the legislation to Democrat Bill Clinton, who signed the measure into law in 1993.
Since then, the RFRA has been cited by Christian organizations fighting for their right to pray in schools, Sikhs seeking the right to wear their religious headgear in their driver’s license photos and Jewish inmates wanting to practice their religion more openly in Texas prisons.
Conservative groups, such as the Heritage Foundation, believe the law protects religious individuals, but many progressives believe the law has been used to discriminate against certain groups, especially members of the LGBTQ community.
In 2012, a Colorado baker refused to bake a cake for a gay couple, citing his religious objections. The case made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled narrowly in favor of the baker saying the government could not infringe on his rights.
Many progressives viewed the baker’s actions and the SCOTUS decision as discrimination and many conservatives saw both as protecting religious liberty, which they say is in a precarious situation due to LGBTQ rights.
Baylor said progressives’ support for the RFRA ended in 1997 when the high court ruled the RFRA unconstitutional and said it could only be applied at the federal level.
“The left decided that robust protections of religious liberty posed a threat to the advancement of gay rights,” he said.
Conservatives argue that because RFRA cannot be applied at the state level, many individuals are denied their religious freedoms.
“In California, an animal rights group sued to prevent a local rabbi from performing an annual ritual associated with repentance. They managed to drag the litigation on so long that the rabbis were not able to perform the ritual that year,” said Howard Slugh, co-founder of The Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty.
Although conservatives’ fear may be unfounded, the battle between religious groups seeking protection to practice freely, and LGBTQ groups seeking to limit what they say is codified oppression, will continue in the next Congress.
“The government has a responsibility to create an environment in which everyone is free to practice their own religion, but he does not believe this freedom includes the right to deprive any person, straight or not, of basic rights guaranteed to them by law,” Cicilline said.