After more than a year of intensive lobbying on the part of a broad bi-partisan coalition of organizations, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act on May 11, 1993. The bill was passed by voice vote without amendments. Although serious opposition to passage of the RFRA is considered unlikely, the Senate must still vote on the bill before it becomes enacted law.
The purpose of the RFRA is to reinstate vitally important First Amendment rights guaranteeing individuals the right to free exercise of religion. These rights were severely curtailed as a result of the 1990 Supreme Court decision in Smith v. Oregon in which the court determined that the free exercise of religion was no longer a “fundamental right” worthy of the same protection as other First Amendment rights. Indeed, the majority declared that treating the free exercise of religion as a fundamental freedom gave it too high a standard of legal protection and was a “luxury” our nation could no longer afford.
Since Smith, many courts which once would have resolved a constitutional question in favor of religious liberty have been rejecting free-exercise arguments. On issues ranging from church zoning laws, to the public display of the cross, to the religious rights of prisoners, the courts are substantially limiting freedom of religion.
The RFRA would nullify the Supreme Court ruling and return First Amendment free exercise rights to their pre-Smith standard of review.
Home school families played a significant role in the push toward House passage of the RFRA. In addition to the letters and phone calls generated by home schoolers from grassroots America, more than thirty teams of trained, home school families canvassed Congress as part of the National Center for Home Education’s Congressional Action Program. These teams delivered information packets to the members of Congress and expressed their hope that the Congressmen would pledge support for religious freedom by endorsing the RFRA.
At the time of writing the Senate is planning to vote on the RFRA by the week of June 7. Various leaders of the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion are working to persuade President Clinton to sign the bill into law shortly after Senate passage. There is a strong likelihood that by mid-June the RFRA will be law.