Religious Freedom Restoration Act

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (also known as RFRA, pronounced “rifra”) is a 1993 United States federal law that “ensures that interests in religious freedom are protected” and provides a “strict scrutiny” test for courts: namely, that government may not burden or restrict a person’s, church’s or religious institution’s exercise of religion, unless the government demonstrates that the burden or restriction furthers a compelling government interest and is accomplished through the least restrictive means.

Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in response to a 1990 US Supreme Court decision, Employment Division v. Smith, that rejected a longstanding principle that the government had to show a “compelling state interest” to interfere with religious practices. RFRA was aimed to counteract that decision.

In 1997, in the City of Boerne v. Flores decision, the United States Supreme Court held RFRA to be unconstitutional as applied to the States. The Court ruled that the Tenth Amendment prevented Congress from applying RFRA to the States in the absence of proof that the States were generally failing to protect religious free exercise. RFRA, however, continues to be applied to the federal government. In response to City of Boerne v. Flores and other related RFRA issues, 21 individual states have passed Religious Freedom Restoration Acts that apply to state governments and local municipalities.