Religious Freedom Restoration Act: 'Historic legislation' signed into law

"The most historic piece of legislation dealing with religious freedom in our lifetime," - the Religious Freedom Restoration Act - was signed into law Nov. 16 by President Bill Clinton.

The act is designed to make it tougher for government to interfere with religion.Passed Oct. 27 by the U.S. Senate and May 11 by the House of Representatives, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, in effect, nullifies the Supreme Court's ruling on Employment Division v. Smith, by restoring the "compelling interest" test that was struck down by the 1990 decision.

The legislation was sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, Republican from Utah and a Church member, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat from Massachusetts. The bill had received rare endorsement from the Church, which was one of a coalition of 68 religious and civil liberties organizations to support the bill.

Following passage by the Senate, the First Presidency issued a statement on Oct. 27 "commending the sponsors of the legislation and the Religious Freedom Coalition for their recognition of the importance of the free exercise of religion to the freedom and well-being of our pluralistic society."

The new law overturns the Supreme Court ruling that allowed the federal, state, or local government to interfere with religion as long as they merely had rational reasons for doing so and did not specifically target any group.

Prior to the 1990 ruling, such interference was allowed only if government could prove a "compelling" interest and then used the least restrictive means possible. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act restores the compelling interest test.

Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Council of the Twelve represented the First Presidency at the signing of the bill on the South Lawn, just outside the White House Oval Office window.

As some 200 leaders from various churches looked on, President Clinton said the backing of the bill by groups that agree on very little showed "the power of God is such that even in the legislative branch miracles can happen."

Elder Ballard also acknowledged "the hand of God in this great effort." In an interview, he said the legislation "only could have occurred because the Lord put His hand on it and made it come to pass." Later, speaking at a press conference of several of the coalition members following the signing of the bill, the apostle said, "Throughout the history of this legislation there were impasses which were overcome only as a direct result of divine intervention." The press conference was held at the Hay-Adams Hotel, near the White House.

Later, Elder Ballard told the Church News that the bill signing was "a very impressive experience. It was a historic day, one of the most historic days for freedom of religion in this country. There has been nothing like it since the adoption of the First Amendment. It is no small thing for the Congress to reverse a Supreme Court decision. The diversity of religious organizations getting together and having such an impact was a very healthy thing for America."

Both President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore spoke at the bill-signing ceremony. "Both heartily endorsed the passage of the bill," said Elder Ballard.

In his prepared remarks at the signing, President Clinton praised the coalition for its central role in drafting and working hard for the passage of this historic piece of legislation.

"We all have a shared desire here to protect perhaps the most precious of all American liberties - religious freedom. Usually the signing of legislation by a president is a ministerial act, often a quiet ending to a turbulent legislative process. Today, this event assumes a more majestic quality because of our ability together to affirm the historic role that people of faith have played in the history of this country and the constitutional protections those who profess and express their faith have always demanded and cherished."

Vice President Gore told the assembled group, "We want Americans free to practice religion not as government sees fit, but as they see fit."

Elder Ballard said that after President Clinton spoke from his prepared text, he set aside his notes and called upon the 68 organizations of the coalition to help the government with crime and violence on the street and to help America become a better place.

Also attending the signing ceremony were Sen. Hatch and Pres. LaMar Sleight of the Oakton Virgina Stake and area director of public affairs for the Church's North America Northeast Area.

"The signing," said Sen. Hatch, "restores to all Americans a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution. This act restores the precious balance between the interests of our government and the religious liberties of our citizens."

At the press conference following the bill signing, Elder Ballard said:

"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is extremely pleased that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 was signed into law today. We express our appreciation to the president of the United States, the members of Congress and to the other members of the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion for their vision, leadership, courage and determination to protect our religious freedoms.

"We praise especially the leadership of Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts who served as prime sponsors of this historic piece of legislation. We thank Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada for his efforts in bringing this bill to the floor of the Senate for final debate. We gratefully acknowledge the thousands of hours spent by Oliver "Buzz" Thomas, who served as chairman of this unique coalition and who spearheaded efforts to ensure passage of this bill. . . .

"This is the most historic piece of legislation dealing with religious freedom in our lifetime. It preserves the right of every American to freely worship his God or her God. By enacting this law, Congress has restored the long-standing test which requires a demonstration of compelling state interest before a governmental action may interfere with a religious practice. This standard was abandoned in the 1990 decision of the Supreme Court (Employment Division v. Smith).

"For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints this legislation implements into federal law a vital principle embodied in our Church's 11th Article of Faith:

"We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may."

Elder Ballard told the Church News that he further stated that the coalition members "ought to respond in our own ways to help the president bring about a calmer environment in America, and to bring about basic religious values that will help reduce crime in the streets and strengthen the homes in America."

Elder Ballard also praised the "careful supervision of our efforts by the Church's Public Affairs Committee in Washington, headed by Don Ladd. His committee, along with the Public Affairs Office in Washington, rendered invaluable service.

During hearings on the religious freedom bill, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Council of the Twelve testified twice before Congress in favor of the bill. It was only the third time in the history of the Church that an official representative was sent to testify before Congress.

Testifying Sept. 18 before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Elder Oaks said: "If past is prologue, the forces of local, state and federal governmental power, now freed from the compelling government interest test, will increasingly interfere with the free exercise of religion. We fear that the end result will be a serious diminution of the religious freedom guaranteed by the United States Constitution."

From the time of the Supreme Court ruling in the Smith case until it was overturned with the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Sen. Hatch said, "To date, lower courts have overridden religious liberty interests in over 50 cases."

In an interview with the Church News, Oliver S. "Buzz" Thomas, chairman of the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion, said: "I think it's quite likely there would be no Religious Freedom Restoration Act were it not for the LDS Church."

Mr. Thomas, former adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, explained, "The Church and Sen. Orrin Hatch played an invaluable role in securing this legislation.

"And this is not just another civil rights bill or another piece of federal legislation. It is without a doubt the most important piece of legislation affecting churches in the history of the Republic. The American people don't realize that yet, of course, because not many of them had been forced to litigate free-exercise claims in the wake of the Smith decision three years ago. But in fact, those churches and religious bodies that had been forced to litigate had almost always lost; that is, the protections for religious organizations after the Smith decision were almost non-existent."

He said he had been encouraged to see diverse groups work to promote passage of the legislation.

In speaking with the Church News, Sen. Hatch said a remarkably diverse group of organizations supported the legislation, "almost every church in the country and every religious organization, and many of the civil liberties organizations."

He added: "It has tremendous significance because it means neither federal nor state governments will be able to burden religious belief unless they can show a very serious compelling state interest in doing so. And even if they can show that, they have to be pretty neutral in their approach toward religion, and they have to use the least restrictive means of enforcing whatever imposition they place on religion."

He said the new act would prevent the government from burdening "our religion and upsetting our own particular doctrinal standards."

The new law is "the ultimate rule for religious freedom in America, and this is one of the most important constitutional pieces of legislation in history, at least from a First Amendment standpoint."

Noting that the First Amendment to the Constitution provides for both freedom of religion and freedom of speech, Sen. Hatch said religion at last is being given the same type of veneration as is freedom of speech.

The passage of the bill was also aided by Church member Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, who was instrumental in bringing the legislation to the Senate floor before the end of this legislative year.

"Religion is a private, individual matter," Sen. Reid said. "The freedom to follow the practices and beliefs of any religion is a founding principle of the United States.

"I think the act reaffirms the importance of religious freedom in American life. It, of course, reversed the impact of the Smith case, which wiped out the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment."

The clause states that Congress shall make no law "prohibiting the free-exercise" of religion.

Another Church member, Sen. Robert F. Bennett, R-Utah, said: "I'm delighted the matter is finally resolved. It's a shame that it was necessary because many of the freedoms that it outlines are the freedoms that should have been protected in the Constitution. But it was necessary, and now it is done and I am very grateful.

"It was a good experience to work together with a number of people of all religions and political persuasions. Very often we get divisive around here, and this was one issue that was quite unifying as we approached the Constitutional principles that were involved."

The day before the bill was signed, Elder Ballard was asked why the Church had such an interest in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

"There was great sensitivity that this act be passed," commented Elder Ballard. "From our history we know what it means to be a small group that could have been affected by the [Supreme CourtT ruling."

He said although the Church was not worried as much about problems it could have faced from restrictive laws since it is now the fifth largest religious organization in the country, it had a concern that smaller religious groups with unusual practices could be targeted as the LDS Church was in its early days. "The Church wanted to guarantee religious freedom for all," said Elder Ballard.

This article was written by Dell Van Orden, Church News editor, and R. Scott Lloyd, staff writer. Jocelyn M. Denyer, Public Affairs specialist, North America Northeast Area Office, and Lee Davidson, Deseret News Washington Bureau chief, also contributed to this report.

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