Explainer: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Nov 8, 2023, 7:00 AM | Updated: 4:36 pm

The U.S. Capitol is shown in Washington, DC. Both houses of the U.S. Congress. The Religious Freedo...

FILE: The U.S. Capitol is shown in Washington, DC. (Stefan Zaklin /Getty Images)

(Stefan Zaklin /Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect that Ukrainian interfaith leaders were not in Utah when they discussed the connection between faith and freedom.

SALT LAKE CITY — Recent comments from Ukrainian interfaith leaders prompted Inside Sources host Boyd Matheson to discuss the 30th anniversary of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law defining a powerful principle: that religious liberty is an essential component of freedom.

This delegation, with individuals from various religious backgrounds, detailed the importance of religious liberty, especially within territories controlled or occupied by foreign powers. This shed light on both the global significance of the RFRA and the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia.

What is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act?

The RFRA states that the government cannot impose “significant burdens” on an individual’s or a religious organization’s practice of religion unless it can prove a compelling interest and uses the least restrictive means to achieve its goal.

The law is defined by some as underscoring the significance of religious liberty as a fundamental cornerstone of religious freedom. 

It emerged in response to a pivotal Supreme Court decision, Employment Division v. Smith, which limited the protection of religious practices. Later, religious law scholars said Employment Division v. Smith sparked the need for thorough legal protection of religious liberty.

More on Employment Division v. Smith

In Employment Division v. Smith, two Native Americans, Alfred Smith and Galen Black lost their jobs and unemployment benefits because they used a substance called peyote, which is a part of their religious ceremonies.

The use of peyote was against the law in Oregon. The Supreme Court ruled that they had broken the law because, unlike other states, Oregon did not have an exemption for them to use peyote during religious rites.

The ruling against Smith and Black made it harder for people to claim religious exemptions from laws that applied to everyone else. Religious liberty scholar Douglas Laycock said the ruling could have set a precedent for the legal denial of religious liberties.

Further, Laycock said Employment Division v. Smith essentially declared that every American has the right to believe in a religion but no guaranteed right to practice it.

Laycock said the RFRA was created to improve the consequences of Employment Division v. Smith, and that the act established a legal process for the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. By doing so, Laycock said the RFRA reinforced the fundamental principle of religious liberty.

Other relevant religious freedom cases

Another relevant case, Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940), highlighted the significance of the RFRA by showing that religious freedom had not always been as protected as it is today. In this case, the Supreme Court upheld a Pennsylvania school’s requirement that students salute the flag. Even if it conflicted with their religious beliefs.

City of Boerne v. Flores (1997) added another layer to the RFRA’s application. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case challenged the RFRA and held that Congress had overstepped its authority by applying the RFRA to state and local governments.

This decision limited the reach of the federal RFRA and emphasized the importance of state-level RFRA laws. This led to many states incorporating language from the federal RFRA into their state laws.

Religious freedom in Utah

Utah lawmakers have not created a state version of the RFRA. A possible reason is that the Utah Constitution largely assures religious freedom and liberty. It specifically states:

The State shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

In other words, there may be no need for a state-specific RFRA in Utah, yet. State legislation is often crafted in response to a community issue that requires a solution according to the Legislative Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives.

That is not to say that laws addressing the expression of religion don’t exist in Utah. One bill referred to as “The Utah Compromise” proposes to strike a balance between religious freedoms and civil rights. According to the Deseret News, this bill extended a range of nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ+ individuals while at the same time preserved religious freedoms.

How does the RFRA affect Free Speech?

While the focus of the RFRA is on protecting religious freedom, there is a connection to free speech issues. Both freedom of religion and freedom of speech are fundamental aspects of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In some cases, legal challenges involving the RFRA may also touch upon free speech rights. This is especially true when religious beliefs or practices affect other forms of expression. The RFRA’s requirement for the government to demonstrate a compelling interest and use the least restrictive means can influence how courts address free speech issues when they intersect with religious freedom.

Inside Sources with Boyd Matheson can be heard on weekdays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Inside Sources

Christmas tip...

Curt Gresseth

If you tip more during Christmas, are you feeling generous or pressured?

Most American say they will tip more, or the same amount as last year, during this Christmas season.

3 days ago

governor cox and several other people speak about his plan to address homelessness in utah...

Aimee Cobabe and Hugo Rikard-Bell

Gov. Cox releases budget plan to improve homelessness resources in Utah

Gov. Spencer Cox's office said Utah has gaps in how it addresses homelessness. His plans will attempt to close those gaps.

5 days ago

Two street signs pointing in opposite directions. One reads "censorship" and the other reads "free ...

Mariah Maynes

The role university leaders play in promoting free speech

University leadership plays a valuable role in promoting free speech on college campuses. By modeling discourse and promoting factual information, they can encourage students to do the same.

12 days ago

President M. Russell Ballard might have been losing his vision himself, but he never stopped inviti...

Boyd Matheson

Boyd Matheson: President M. Russell Ballard inviting all to “come and see!”

President M. Russell Ballard spent his life inviting people to "come and see."

23 days ago

BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 04: Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shake hands with U.S Vice President ...

Mariah Maynes

Biden-Jinping meeting: what’s on the agenda?

A long awaited meeting between President Biden and China's president, Xi Jinping will occur on Wednesday in San Francisco, California.

25 days ago

The U.S Supreme Court building....

Kristine Weller

Separation of powers: How the Supreme Court will weigh in

The Supreme Court will be considering a variety of cases that have the potential to reign in federal bureaucracy.

25 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Happy family in winter clothing at the ski resort, winter time, watching at mountains in front of t...

Visit Bear Lake

Ski more for less: Affordable ski resorts near Bear Lake, Utah

Plan your perfect ski getaway in Bear Lake this winter, with pristine slopes, affordable tickets, and breathtaking scenery.

front of the Butch Cassidy museum with a man in a cowboy hat standing in the doorway...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Looking Back: The History of Bear Lake

The history of Bear Lake is full of fascinating stories. At over 250,000 years old, the lake has seen generations of people visit its shores.

silhouette of a family looking over a lake with a bird in the top corner flying...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

8 Fun Activities To Do in Bear Lake Without Getting in the Water

Bear Lake offers plenty of activities for the whole family to enjoy without having to get in the water. Catch 8 of our favorite activities.

Wellsville Mountains in the spring with a pond in the foreground...

Wasatch Property Management

Advantages of Renting Over Owning a Home

Renting allows you to enjoy luxury amenities and low maintenance without the long-term commitment and responsibilities of owning a home.

Clouds over a red rock vista in Hurricane, Utah...

Wasatch Property Management

Why Southern Utah is a Retirement Paradise

Retirement in southern Utah offers plenty of cultural and recreational opportunities. Find out all that this region has to offer.

Human hand holding a protest banner stop vaping message over a crowded street background....

Prosperous Utah Communities

Utah’s Battle to Protect Youth from Vaping Epidemic Faces New Threat as Proposed Rule Threatens Progress

Utah's strict standards of nicotine levels in vaping products are at risk, increasing health hazards associated with use. Read more about how you can advocate for a better future for Utah's youth.

Explainer: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act