Religious leaders from several Christian churches and Jewish organizations have reaffirmed their “staunch support” for the federal religious freedom protections cited in the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision.
“In the United States, freedom of religion has always included – and should always include – the right to live out one’s religion and act according to one’s conscience outside the walls of one’s house of worship,” they said in a June 30 letter.
They praised the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 as “a highly flexible legal standard that protects the rights and liberties of individuals of all religious faiths, including the most vulnerable.”
Signers of the letter include Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as Southern Baptist, Lutheran, Jewish and Mormon leaders.
The letter asked Congress not to amend or repeal the act, calling it “one of our nation’s most vital legal protections for the religious freedom and rights of conscience of every person of every faith.”
The signatories noted the important role of religion in public life.
“Every single day, millions of Americans are motivated by their faith to go and serve the neediest among us. The good works of these individuals of faith can be seen in soup kitchens, hospitals, schools, hospices – and, yes, family-owned businesses,” they said.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act says the government may not substantially burden an individual’s free exercise of religion except for a compelling purpose in a manner that is the least restrictive on religious exercise.
Enacted in 1993, the legislation was signed by President Bill Clinton after being unanimously passed in the House of Representatives and passed by a vote of 97-3 in the Senate. It was drafted in response to concern over Supreme Court decisions weakening religious freedom protections.
The law played a key role in the Supreme Court’s June 30 decision in favor of the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, who voiced religious objections to a federal contraception mandate that required their family-owned businesses to provide employee insurance coverage for some drugs that could cause early abortions.
In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court pointed to the federal law in finding that the government had not used the least restrictive means of advancing its goal of ensuring free birth control and related products for all women. For example, it suggested, the government could fund the drugs and products that the family businesses object to covering, thereby ensuring coverage without restricting religious freedom.
Religious freedom advocates welcomed the ruling. U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a lead Republican sponsor of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, said June 30 that the act means that religious liberty of all Americans “must be equally protected and not unnecessarily burdened.”
However, some lawmakers who originally voted for the act have objected to its application in the Hobby Lobby decision, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).
“No matter how sincerely held a religious belief might be, for-profit employers – like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood – should not be allowed to wield their beliefs as a means of denying employees access to critical preventive health-care services,” Rep. Nadler said.
In their June 30 letter, the religious leaders stressed that the religious freedom act has protected Americans “of all faiths” from “government coercion,” calling for it to be maintained.
They urged that it not be amended or repealed due to opposition to the Hobby Lobby decision. Doing so, they said, would “set a dark precedent by undermining the fundamental principle of religious freedom for all, even for those whose religious beliefs may be unpopular at the moment.”
Signers of the letter included leaders of the Assemblies of God (USA), the Church of God in Christ, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Presbyterian Church in America’s General assembly, the General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Rabbinical Council of America, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the Wesleyan Church.
The letter was addressed to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)