by Leslie C. Griffin, William S. Boyd Professor of Law at UNLV Boyd School of Law
“In my opinion, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) is a ‘law respecting an establishment of religion’ that violates the First Amendment to the Constitution,” wrote Justice John Paul Stevens in City of Boerne v. Flores, the 1997 case that invalidated RFRA for state governments. RFRA still prohibits the federal government from “substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion.” Congress drafted RFRA to express its dissatisfaction with the Supreme Court’s important ruling in Employment Division v. Smith that all citizens must obey neutral laws. Smith rejected the argument that religious citizens are constitutionally entitled to disobey the law. In contrast, “RFRA establishes an across-the-board scheme that deliberately singles out religious practices, en masse, as a congressionally favored class of activity,” as Cardozo law professor Marci Hamilton argued in briefing Boerne.
Justice Stevens and Professor Hamilton were right. The most fundamental Establishment Clause rule is that the government may not prefer religion over irreligion or non-religion. RFRA, however, “privileges religion over all other expressions of conscience.” Unfortunately, in 1997 only Stevens and Hamilton recognized the establishment problems with RFRA, which continues to bind the federal government.
Those problems were confirmed by the Tenth Circuit’s decision in Hobby Lobby, which exempted the large arts and crafts chain store from the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act without mentioning the Establishment Clause. The mandate requires employee health care plans to contain preventive care coverage that includes FDA-approved contraceptive methods and sterilization procedures. Because Hobby Lobby’s Christian owners believe that contraception causes the death of a human embryo, they want to deny contraceptive insurance to their employees. The Tenth Circuit ruled that RFRA grants the employers that right.