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ACLU Strongly Supports Religious Freedom Restoration Act;
Urges Congress to Act Quickly to Restore Protections
For IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 11, 1993
WASHINGTON -- The American Civil Liberties Union today joined
congressional sponsors and other members of the diverse coalition
formed to support the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in
calling upon Congress to act quickly in restoring full legal
protection to religious liberty.
"Passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is the most
important action that Congress can take for the free exercise of
religion since the First Congress passed the Bill of Rights,"
said ACLU Legislative Counsel Robert S. Peck.
The legislation is designed to restore the level of legal
protection that was previously enforced by the courts under the
"For two centuries, the guarantees of the First Amendment has
proven to be the boldest and most successful experiment in
religious liberty the world has known," Peck added. "A disastrous
and erroneous decision by the Supreme Court three years ago has
threatened to derail that experiment and make religious freedom a
matter of legislative grace. Such an approach is inconsistent
with our constitutional heritage and the level of protection the
courts afford all other fundamental rights."
In Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the U.S. Supreme Court
rejected the traditional tests for evaluating infringements of
religious liberty and effectively read the Free Exercise Clause
out of the First Amendment. As Justice Blackmun's dissent
correctly put it, the Court's "holding dramatically departs from
well-settled First Amendment jurisprudence . . . and is
incompatible with our Nation's fundamental commitment to
individual religious liberty." The Religious Freedom Restoration
Act attempts to restore the previous status quo, under which
religious practices must be accommodated unless a compelling
governmental interest can be demonstrated and advanced in the
least restrictive manner.
The Smith decision rejected a claim ~or unemployment benefits by
two Native Americans who had been fired from their state jobs for
the ritual use of peyote in tribal religious ceremonies. It did
so expansivsly, reaching far beyond the issue before them and
declaring that government practices and policies that are
neutrally stated and generally applicable will be upheld against
constitutional attack as long as the policies are not targeted at
religious practice. Thus, under the Court's new rules, laws
passed in ignorance or passed irrespective of their impact on
religious freedom would be deemed constitutionally valid. In
rejecting the compelling government interest standard that
previously governed these cases, Justice Scalia's majority
opinion characterized the test as a "luxury" that the nation
could no longer afford as a result of the country's growing
"The Court's rationale turns the First Amendment on its head, and
guarantees judicial protection only in periods of relative
religious homogeneity," Peck said.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act simply and elegantly
restores the compelling interest test that previously
characterized free exercise cases prior to Smith.
The ACLU applauds the leadership of Senators Edward Kennedy (D-
MA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Representatives Charles Schumer
(D-NY) and Christopher Cox (R-CA) as well as the more than 150
original co-sponsors in both Houses, for their support of this
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