Why You Should Care About Religious Freedom
Since our nation's inception, individuals from various religious denominations have too often suffered discrimination simply because of their religious beliefs. The fight to preserve religious liberty has long been closely aligned with the civil rights movement. Over the last decade, civil rights and liberties advocates have repeatedly fought attempts to limit free religious expression and undermine the wall between church and state.
The First Amendment guarantees Americans the freedom to worship -- or not to worship -- as they choose. Our founders devised the wall of separation between church and state to protect religions from undue governmental interference, to insulate government from undue influence by any particular religious groups, and minority religions from oppression by the government or majority religions.
In recent years, a great deal of attention has focused on the public debate over "charitable choice" provisions. "Charitable choice" refers to legislative and other proposals that would allow or expand federal funding of social services and other programs run by religious organizations. Civil rights and civil liberties advocates have criticized such proposals for their potential to undermine the separation of church and state -- by permitting religious groups to receive federal money to run programs that permit proselytizing and religious discrimination.
Until the 1980s, the Supreme Court routinely ruled in favor of individual religious freedom and against state efforts to constrain it. The Supreme Court's 1991 decision in Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith, however, was seen as a major assault on religious freedom by greatly expanding governments' ability to enforce generally applicable laws in ways that infringe upon religious exercise.
In Smith, the Court ruled that states and localities no longer had to show a "compelling governmental interest" to justify generally applicable laws that limited or infringed upon religious exercise. The ruling in this case was widely attacked by representatives of virtually all religious bodies in the United States as a major blow to religious freedom
In 1993 Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which would have overturned Smith and restore the "compelling interest" standards that limited government's ability to enforce legislation that infringes upon religious freedom. However, the Supreme Court soon struck down RFRA as an unconstitutional exercise of Congressional powers in City of Boerne v. Flores.
Not giving up, advocates for religious liberty led the push for the successful enactment of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in 2000. RLUIPA provides important new protections for religious freedom without the potential for undermining state and local civil rights laws.
Despite opposition from the civil rights, religious, social service and labor communities, President George W. Bush with the support of the House of Representatives passed H.R. 7 in late 2001 - legislation to give taxpayer dollars to religious organizations to provide social services.