The Basic Right of a Free People

National Review

Mar 11 2014

Religious freedom is no luxury, but is a basic right of a free people.”  It is “one of the cornerstones of our democracy” and one of our country’s most “cherished traditions.” These are the words of then-Representative Charles Schumer as he championed his bill, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), on the floor of the House in 1993.

The Supreme Court struck a blow to religious freedom in 1993 in Employment Division v. Smith by lowering the standard of judicial review for government infringements on religious free exercise. In a rare show of unanimity, Congress responded by overwhelmingly passing RFRA. President Clinton observed upon signing the law that “Our Founders . . . knew that religion helps to give our people the character without which a democracy cannot survive.”

This month, the Supreme Court has a second shot at rectifying its decision in Smith—this time with the aid of RFRA—when it considers two challenges to the HHS mandate from Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood. 

Few freedoms were more valuable to those who settled this nation than the freedom of conscience. The drafters of our Constitution understood that throughout history, leaders in civil government, “who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others.”

The greatness of our Constitution lies in its design to protect a multiplicity of opinions from being silenced in favor of the agendas of the reining governmental power. By passing RFRA, Congress ensured that the government could not limit the exercise of religious beliefs without clearing a significant hurdle: the burden of proving that there is a compelling government interest for the restriction, and that there is no possible less restrictive way the government could accomplish that goal. 

Freedom of conscience extends well beyond what a person believes. It encompasses nothing less than a person’s whole being—who they are, how they act, and the decisions they make on a daily basis. It can include nothing less than the way a person lives all aspects of her life, from private life to the public and commercial arenas

The First Amendment guarantees that we have freedom to live our lives according to our religious beliefs and moral convictions, free from government coercion. This freedom is not abandoned simply because an individual enters the stream of commerce. And yet, that is exactly what the Administration is trying to force businesses like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga to do under the HHS mandate. American citizens should be free to practice their faith in all areas of their life, including the public square, and should not be compelled to limit their religion to the physical confines of a church. 

Over fifty friend of the court briefs were filed in support of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, including support from one hundred and seven bipartisan Members of Congress who have urged the Supreme Court to strike the HHS mandate as unconstitutional because the government cannot meet its required burden of proof under RFRA. The importance of protecting this standard is exhibited by the overwhelming volume of amicus briefs filed in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, outnumbering the opposition by nearly three to one.

As a nation, our laws should encourage and support—not penalize—citizens who seek to consistently adhere to their moral convictions. In the words of President Clinton, we must “respect one another’s faiths, fight to the death to preserve the rights of every American to practice whatever convictions he or she has.” 

Though we may have good-faith disagreements regarding individual beliefs, we are all better served by a culture that affirms the decision of individuals to adhere to a moral framework for the basis on which to live their lives and run their businesses. It is this freedom that RFRA protects. It is this freedom that the Supreme Court must uphold, so that we each may live, as George Washington wrote, by “the little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

Originally posted: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/373071/basic-right-free-people-john-boozman-j-randy-forbes