But what are the limits to what may be carried out in the name of free exercise of religion? What is to stop an individual or group from carrying out acts of rape, theft, or human sacrifice, and claiming that they are exercising their protected religious beliefs in doing so?
RFRA helps answer that question. It says that the federal government may not "substantially burden" the free exercise of religion, unless there is a "compelling government interest" in doing so, and it is carried out in the "least-restrictive" manner possible.
Over the last 25 years, courts have used these standards to evaluate various religious freedom claims that conflict with established laws. In one case, courts upheld the right of an Arkansas inmate to grow a beard as required by his Muslim faith. In another, a Native American feather dancer was allowed to use eagle feathers in a religious ceremony.
In a high-profile 2014 case, the Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby and similar employers could not be forced to comply with the federal contraception mandate against their religious beliefs. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the federal government had failed to prove that the mandate was the "least restrictive means" of advancing its goal of providing free birth control to women.
RFRA was initially passed in response to two high profile cases involving American Indians. In one case, the Supreme Court ruled against the use of an illegal hallucinogen – peyote – in a Native American religious service. In the other, the court upheld the U.S. Forest Service's efforts to build a road through land considered sacred by several tribes.
At the time of its passage, RFRA enjoyed wide bipartisan support and was not considered controversial. Introduced by Democrats Chuck Schumer and Ted Kennedy, it passed unanimously in the House and by a 97-3 vote in the Senate. President Bill Clinton signed it into law Nov. 16, 1993.