Both Democratic Frontrunners Voted For The Religious Freedom Restoration Act In 1993. Do They Still Support It?

The 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act is one of the more interesting federal laws of the past few decades. What makes it so is the shifting nature of its political implications.

When it was almost unanimously passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, it was viewed as a liberal bill, and a rebuke to a Supreme Court decision written by Justice Antonin Scalia that allowed Native Americans to be punished for using peyote in a religious ritual. Today, it is most often invoked to protect Christian small business owners from forced participation in gay weddings.

Another interesting point, that is perhaps just a function of them being so old, is that both the leaders in the polls for the Democratic nomination, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, voted for the bill. RFRA was sponsored in the House of Representatives by a young New York congressman named Chuck Schumer, and in the Senate it was sponsored by Ted Kennedy. It is an ingenious little piece of legislation with two major planks.

First, it establishes that if the government is going to compel a person to violate his religious beliefs, it must have a reasonable interest in doing so. Second, and more importantly, once that interest is established, the government must find the least restrictive means possible to achieve that interest. That is to say, government must achieve its goal in the way that least burdens individuals and the practice of their religious beliefs.

In 1993, this was a pretty easy bill for liberals to latch onto and support. After all, it was a bill meant to protect Native Americans from intrusive government action prohibiting their religious practices. It is unlikely that at the time anybody foresaw a situation in which RFRA would be used to protect Christians from forced participation in gay weddings. Generally speaking, at the time, the right of Christians to practice their religious beliefs was just assumed.
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