Press Release

Thirty Years of RFRA: Protecting Religious Freedom for All Religious Freedom Restoration Act celebrates three decades of upholding America’s first freedom

Media Contact

Ryan Colby 202-349-7219

Additional Information

WASHINGTON – Thirty years ago today, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bipartisan bill designed to ensure that all Americans have the right to freely live out their faith. Since its enactment, RFRA has protected the ability of people of diverse faiths to practice their religious beliefs in peace. Becket has successfully used RFRA to help groups including Catholic religious sisters, Apache feather dancers, and Sikh soldiers serving our country.  

RFRA was passed in 1993 after the Supreme Court cut back long-standing protections for religious Americans in a case called Employment Division v. Smith. The Court decided it was permissible to deny unemployment benefits to Native Americans who were fired for using peyote in their religious ceremonies. A diverse coalition of elected officials, scholars, and advocacy groups soon united to restore broader protections for religious freedom, especially for unpopular and minority faiths. The result was RFRA, which was supported by 66 religious and civil liberties groups, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Humanists, and secular civil liberties organizations like the ACLU.  

For 30 years RFRA has been a bedrock protection for people of all faiths to live out their beliefs freely. It is a balancing test: if the government attempts to restrict religious practices, it must show that it has no better alternative to accomplish a compelling government interest. RFRA has protected Becket clients like Lipan Apache Pastor Robert Soto who can now freely use eagle feathers in religious ceremonies, Army Major Simratpal Singh, who can practice his Sikh faith while serving his country, and the Little Sisters of the Poor, who can continue serving the elderly poor without violating their religious beliefs. Later today, Becket vice president and senior counsel Eric Baxter will discuss RFRA’s enduring significance in protecting our religious freedom at a virtual event hosted by the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation. 

Statements for media use from Becket board members: 

Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University, Emerita, and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See: 

“As we celebrate RFRA’s 30th anniversary, we should be reminded that religious freedom is inherent to our dignity as human beings. Every person, no matter their faith, ought to have the right to pursue the truth and follow the dictates of their conscience without fear of persecution. That is the principle that RFRA was enacted to defend, and it has been immensely successful ever since.” 

Russell D. Moore, Editor in Chief of Christianity Today: 

“The Religious Freedom Restoration Act’s passage thirty years ago was one of those moments when the country lived up to the ideals of its founding. RFRA has protected Americans of every conceivable religious conviction from having their most basic beliefs paved over by a majority. RFRA reaffirmed that the right to soul freedom is not determined by having 51 percent of the people on one’s side. That’s true not only of the content of RFRA, but the way it was passed in the first place. A coalition from the far left to the far right saw an injustice in a bad Supreme Court ruling and came together to correct that injustice, together. They understood that whatever arguments we can and will have with each other, we can only debate those things in an America in which consciences and hearts do not belong to any government. I thank God for RFRA, and am proud to belong to a country where such protections are not just possible but expected.” 

Jacqueline C. Rivers, Executive Director and Senior Fellow for Social Science and Policy of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies: 

“RFRA provides key protection for people of all faiths. For the Black Church, it is important that our right to espouse unpopular beliefs is ensured, and that our right to worship in the exuberant style that enabled us to endure slavery is protected by RFRA, even in neighborhoods where such religious expression is unwelcome.” 

Mark Rienzi, president and CEO at Becket: 

“In our era of division and polarization, RFRA’s anniversary serves as a timely reminder of our need to live together in peace. It is a quintessentially American approach to religious liberty, allowing our neighbors to live their lives in peace, even when we disagree about important matters.” 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.