The Heritage Foundation

Factsheet #157

March 30, 2015

March 30, 2015 | Factsheet on

Religious Freedom Restoration Act: Protecting All Americans’ Fundamental Freedom

Protecting All Americans’ Fundamental Freedom

  • All Americans should be free to live and work in accordance with their beliefs without fear of government coercion or penalty.

Broad and Bipartisan Support for RFRA

  • In response to the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, which narrowed protections for the free exercise of religion, Congress sought to restore protections for religiously motivated actions for all Americans by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA).[1]
  • Support for RFRA in Congress was broad and bipartisan. Sponsored by then-Rep. Charles Schumer (D-NY), the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), RFRA passed 97–3 in the Senate and by unanimous voice vote in the House. RFRA was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton.
  • A diverse, 68-member coalition supported the law, including the American Civil Liberties Union, National Association of Evangelicals, Americans for the Separation of Church and State, and many other organizations that represented Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, and other faiths.[2]
  • Twenty states have passed state-level RFRAs. Eleven additional states have religious liberty protections that state courts have interpreted to provide a similar level of protection.[3] The federal RFRA protects against federal government violations of religious liberty, and state RFRAs protect against state violations.

Balancing Religious Freedom and Compelling Government Interests

  • The federal RFRA, like many of the state-level laws, prohibits substantial government burdens on religious exercise unless the government can show a compelling interest in burdening religious liberty and does so through the least restrictive means.
  • RFRA protects the fundamental religious freedom of all Americans, including individuals of both minority and majority religions.[4]
  • Despite its strong deference to religious freedom, RFRA does not allow individuals to do whatever they wish in the name of religion. The law is simply a commonsense way of balancing government interests with the fundamental freedom of individuals to live out their faith.

About the Author

Show references in this report

[1] Edwin Meese, Matthew Spalding, David F. Forte, The Heritage Guide to the Constitution (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 2014),!/amendments/1/essays/139/free-exercise-of-religion (accessed June 25, 2014).

[2] Douglas Laycock and Oliver S. Thomas, “Interpreting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” 73 Tex. L. Rev. 209, 210 n.9 (1994).

[3] Eugene Volokh, “What is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” The Volokh Conspiracy, Dec. 2, 2013, (accessed March 30, 2015).

[4] Kimberlee Wood Colby, “The State of Religious Liberty in the United States,” testimony before Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, Committee on the Judiciary, United States House of Representatives, June 10, 2014, (accessed March 30, 2015).