RFRA is an acronym for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bipartisan bill passed by Congress in 1993 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The law protects Americans from government interference as they live out their religious convictions. In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that the RFRA passed by Congress only protects Americans from federal overreach, not state overreach. To receive that protection in Georgia, our General Assembly will need to pass a state version of the federal law.
How does it work?
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act requires all laws that restrict religious freedom to pass a two-pronged test:
Does the government have a compelling interest to implement the law/policy/regulation?
Is there a way to implement the law/policy/regulation without restricting anyone’s religious freedom, or is it being implemented in the least restrictive way possible?
There is a great example of RFRA in action in our neighboring state of Florida. Arnold Abbott, a Christian in Fort Lauderdale, started a non-profit to feed homeless individuals throughout the city. To cut down on the amount of trash on the streets, the city passed an ordinance that banned anyone from feeding the homeless outdoors. Abbott challenged the law in court and won under Florida’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The city had a compelling interest in keeping the streets clean, but preventing Mr. Abbott from feeding the homeless was an intrusive way to achieve that interest. The city had to pursue other options that did not interfere with the religious freedom of Mr. Abbott, and he was allowed to continue fulfilling his calling to serve the homeless.
Do other states have a RFRA?
Yes, there are 23 states that have passed their own Religious Freedom Restoration Act, including Montana which passed RFRA last year. An additional 9 states have state court decisions that require the state to adhere to the RFRA guidelines. Georgia is one of only 19 states that do not have these specific religious liberty protections.
Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia have all passed RFRA.
Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Ohio, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Washington, Wisconsin.
Doesn’t the First Amendment protect religious freedom?
Yes, it does. However, a 1990 court case differentiated religious liberty from the other rights protected under the 1A, such as the freedom to assembly and the free press. The Supreme Court has consistently held that the other rights enumerated in the 1A should receive strict scrutiny protection, even if those rights are infringed upon unintentionally. In the 1990 case, Employment Division v Smith SCOTUS ruled that the right to religious freedom did not enjoy the same strict scrutiny protection unless the government was intentionally and openly attempting to restrict religious liberty. In the above example of Arnold Abbott feeding the homeless, he was not protected under the 1A because the ordinance in question did not intentionally restrict his religious liberty, it was an unintended consequence. As a result, Mr. Abbott was forced to use Florida’s state RFRA law to protect his ministry.
RFRA simply requires the legal system to provide the same protection to religious liberty that is afforded the right to assemble, the freedom of the press, and the freedom of speech.