Under the Supreme Court’s current ruling on First Amendment cases, a court does not need to consider Free Exercise defenses unless a law is specifically designed to target a particular religion. As a result, sincere religious beliefs can be disregarded so long as the law requiring them to be violated applies to everyone equally.
In 1993, the RFRA was passed in order to re-establish the test of Free Exercise claims that had existed for 30 years beforehand. According to the RFRA, the government must present a compelling interest in order to force an individual to violate their religious convictions.
The RFRA does not provide a blank check for disregarding the law because of religion; rather, it merely requires the court to consider 1) whether a sincere religious belief is held, 2) whether there is a compelling government interest in overriding that belief, and 3) whether the least restrictive means are being used to fulfill that interest.
In other words, the RFRA requires courts to consider Free Exercise as a legitimate defense when it is raised, rather than dismissing it out of hand. It establishes the “rule of thumb” that conscience should be protected as much as possible, while still enforcing laws deemed necessary to society. While the RFRA only applies to Federal law, several states have mini-RFRA laws that mimic the Federal law. There is currently a major split in U.S. circuit courts as to whether the RFRA can be cited in private-party lawsuits where the government itself is not suing or being sued.
This means that in lawsuits relying on Federal law, such as bankruptcy, intellectual property and copyright, and employment cases, the RFRA (and thus, Free Exercise) cannot be used as a defense regardless of the consequences to those with sincere convictions. The court need not consider other options, even if the principle of the law could be fulfilled while respecting the beliefs of those involved.
We ask Congress to once and for all clarify the intent and application of the RFRA’s language, and settle the divisive question of whether the RFRA’s protection applies to private-party lawsuits that rely on Federal laws.
For advanced reading on the issues involved, please read Religious Freedom in Private Party Lawsuits by Sara Kohen.