The RFRA is at the center of a huge Supreme Court battle over Obamacare’s requirement that most employers provide workers with health insurance that covers birth control. A big arts and crafts chain called Hobby Lobby, which has Christian owners, claims the mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The RFRA was enacted to block other laws that interfere with Americans’ ability to practice their religion, and it was praised by liberals when it became law back in 1993. Bill Clinton happily signed the law, which overturned a 1990 Supreme Court decision by conservative Justice Antonin Scalia that effectively prohibited Native Americans from using the drug peyote even though it was part of a religious ritual.
Under the RFRA, the state has to show a “compelling” interest when passing laws that restrict people’s religious practices. Back in 1993, the New York Times’ liberal editorial page praised the law, writing:
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act reasserts a broadly accepted American concept of giving wide latitude to religious practices that many might regard as odd or unconventional. The bill deserves passage. … With the Restoration Act, Congress asserts its own interest in protecting religious liberty. It’s a welcome antidote to the official insensitivity to religion the Court spawned in 1990.
Of course, it’s ironic that conservative Hobby Lobby is now trying to use the RFRA to undo a big part of a health care overhaul that many liberals have spent years fighting for. To do so, the arts and crafts chain will have to convince the Supreme Court that forcing employers to pay for birth control coverage doesn’t serve a compelling government interest.
Hobby Lobby will also have to convince the Supreme Court that corporations, and not just people, have a right to religious freedom. Given that the high court has already ruled that businesses have free speech rights, it may not be that much of a stretch for the justices to protect their religious liberty, too.
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