The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993 is, simply put, a federal law enacted by Congress that is designed to protect the “free exercise of religion” – guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights – in cases where other laws might threaten a person’s sincerely-held religious beliefs.
A very simple example of how this RFRA could be utilized to defend “free exercise of religion” is illustrated by two hypothetical cases:
1) Person A holds a religious belief that he must grow vegetables in his yard. However, a federal law forbids growing vegetables in a private yard. The Federal government then brings a lawsuit against Person A on the basis of that federal law. Person A claims the RFRA as his defense against the government’s lawsuit. RFRA requires the government to strictly consider whether Person A’s violation of the law is significantly threatening to society. In other words, the court weighs the conviction of Person A against the need (or “compelling interest”) of the government to protect society at large.
2) Person A holds a religious belief that he must grow vegetables in his yard. However, a federal law forbids growing vegetables in a private yard. Person B then brings a lawsuit against Person A citing the federal prohibition law as grounds for the lawsuit. Person A claims the RFRA as his defense against Person B’s lawsuit (which is called a “private-party” lawsuit). The court must weigh the conviction of Person A against the government’s potential “compelling interest” in the matter, based on Person B’s complaint.
The courts in America are not in agreement that both of the above cases provide a RFRA defense to protect free exercise of religion. Some courts conclude that ONLY case #1, in which the government is the complainer, qualifies for the RFRA defense, and other courts determine that BOTH cases qualify for the RFRA defense.
We petition Congress to clarify whether “private-party” lawsuits qualify to claim RFRA defenses when seeking to protect the free exercise of religion.
A more in-depth explanation of the issues at hand can be found here.