‘Religious freedom is no luxury, but is a basic right of a free people.” It is “one of the cornerstones of our democracy” and one of our country’s most “cherished traditions.”
These are the words of then-Representative Charles Schumer as he championed his bill, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), on the floor of the House in 1993.
The Supreme Court had struck a blow to religious freedom in 1993 in Employment Division v. Smith by lowering the standard of judicial review for government infringements on religious free exercise. In a rare show of robust bipartisanship, Congress responded by overwhelmingly passing RFRA. President Clinton observed on signing the law that “our Founders . . . knew that religion helps to give our people the character without which a democracy cannot survive.”
This month, the Supreme Court has a second shot at rectifying its decision in Smith — this time, with the aid of RFRA — when it considers two challenges to the HHS mandate, from Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood.
Few freedoms were more valuable to those who settled this nation than the freedom of conscience. The drafters of our Constitution understood that throughout history leaders in civil government, “being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others.”
The greatness of our Constitution lies in its design to protect a multiplicity of opinions from being silenced in favor of the agendas of the reigning governmental power. By passing RFRA, Congress ensured that the government could not limit the exercise of religious beliefs without clearing a significant hurdle: the burden of proving that the measure serves a compelling government interest and cannot be met through a less-restrictive method.
Freedom of conscience extends well beyond where a person worships. It encompasses a person’s whole being — who he is, how he acts, and the daily decisions he makes. It can include nothing less than the way a person lives all aspects of her life, from her private life to her public life and commercial conduct.
The First Amendment guarantees that we have freedom to live our lives according to our religious beliefs and moral convictions, free from government coercion. An individual does not abandon this freedom simply because he enters the stream of commerce. And yet, that is exactly what the administration is trying to force on businesses like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga under the HHS mandate.
The importance of protecting this standard is demonstrated by the more than 50 amicus briefs — nearly three times as many as filed by the opposition — in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, from sources including 107 members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, who have urged the Supreme Court to strike down the HHS mandate as unconstitutional because the government cannot meet its required burden of proof under RFRA.
As a nation, we should insist that our laws should encourage and support, not penalize, citizens who seek to consistently adhere to their moral convictions. In the words of President Clinton, we must “respect one another’s faiths [and] fight to the death to preserve the rights of every American to practice whatever convictions he or she has.”
It is these rights that RFRA protects. It is this freedom that the Supreme Court must uphold, so that we each may live, as George Washington wrote, by “the little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
— John Boozman is the junior U.S. senator from Arkansas, and J. Randy Forbes represents Virginia’s fourth congressional district in the House of Representatives.