Christian Legal Society And RFRA’s 20th Anniversary

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) remains a singular achievement in this Nation’s long history of religious freedom. When Congress enacted RFRA in 1993 by overwhelming bipartisan majorities, it re-dedicated the Nation to religious liberty for all Americans.

RFRA’s Bipartisan Passage:  President Clinton signed RFRA into law on November 16, 1993.  Republican Senator Orrin Hatch and Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy together led the effort to pass RFRA in the Senate.  The Senate passed RFRA by a vote of 97-3 on October 27, 1993, followed by a unanimous voice vote in the House on November 3.

The RFRA Coalition:  In response to the Smith decision, a 68-member coalition of diverse religious and civil rights organizations (led by the Christian Legal Society, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Jewish Congress, the Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism, and the American Civil Liberties Union, among other groups) coalesced to encourage Congress to restore substantive protection for religious liberty.  RFRA restored the “compelling interest” test by once again placing the burden on the government to demonstrate that a law is compelling and unachievable by less restrictive means. Even though the “compelling interest” test is a high bar, the government has won many cases – perhaps even the majority of cases – brought under RFRA.  RFRA’s critical role is that it requires the government to demonstrate that it actually has a compelling interest before it can force a citizen to choose between obeying his God or his government.

RFRA’s Remarkable Footprint:  RFRA is a remarkable law because it reinforces three foundational commitments of American constitutionalism: a commitment to limited government, pluralism, and religious liberty. First, RFRA is the rare reminder that America’s government is a government of limited powers — a government that defers to its citizens’ religious liberty except in compelling circumstances.  Second, by evenhandedly protecting religious freedom for all citizens, RFRA embodies American pluralism.

Third, through its passage of RFRA, Congress re-dedicated the Nation to religious liberty for all Americans. Congress re-committed the Nation to the foundational principle that American citizens have the God-given right to live peaceably and undisturbed according to their religious beliefs.  In RFRA, a Nation begun by immigrants seeking religious liberty renewed its pledge to be a perpetual sanctuary for all faiths.

In observance of RFRA’s 20th anniversary, CLS co-sponsored two observances, one at the Newseum and one on Capitol Hill.  The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, a co-sponsor of the Newseum event, prepared an excellent, concise history of the passage of RFRA.


The symposium was sponsored by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty; Christian Legal Society; American Jewish Committee; Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations; Becket Fund for Religious Liberty; and the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute.

For the entire symposium “Restored or Endangered? The State of Free Exercise of Religion in America,” click here

To watch the debate on RFRA and the HHS Mandate, click here.


On November 20, 2013, the Christian Legal Society hosted an event in observance of the 20th Anniversary of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the Canon Caucus Room.  Opening remarks were made by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and additional remarks were made by Senator Orrin Hatch and Congressman Randy Forbes, Co-Chair of the Congressional Prayer Caucus.

The event featured a panel discussion among Marc Stern, General Counsel of the American Jewish Committee, Steve McFarland, Vice President and Chief Legal Officer of World Vision, Mark Chopko, former General Counsel to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Kim Colby, Senior Counsel, Christian Legal Society.  The discussion revolved around how bipartisan support for religious liberty coalesced behind the Act which passed by bipartisan majorities in the Senate (97-3) and the House (unanimous voice vote), as well as its role as the preeminent federal protection for religious liberty.


A short but stellar documentary was produced by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in honor of the 20th anniversary of the passage of RFRA.


Kim Colby and Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, discuss the importance of RFRA in protecting American religious liberty. The Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance works to protect the religious freedom of faith-based service organizations through a multi-faith network of organizations to educate the public, train organizations and their lawyers, create policy alternatives that better protect religious freedom, and advocate to the federal administration and Congress on behalf of the rights of faith-based services.  



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