Jul 1, 2014

Protect Religious Freedom Restoration Act, faith leaders tell Congress


 

NATIONAL

By Catholic News Service
(CNS photo by Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A coalition of leaders representing different U.S. religious faiths said in a June 30 letter to congressional leaders they "are united in staunch support" to protect the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Earlier that day, in a narrowly tailored 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said closely held companies may be exempted from a government requirement to include contraceptives in employee health insurance coverage under RFRA, as the law is known.

The letter from religious leaders, including Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said they are concerned Congress will alter the law to appease opponents of the court's decision in the suits brought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods, the two family-run companies, against the federal government's contraceptive mandate.

Passed with nearly unanimous bipartisan support in 1993 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, RFRA says that the government "shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion" unless that burden is the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest.

In their letter the coalition of religious leaders requested that government officials work to protect "the rights and liberties of individuals of all religious faiths, including the most vulnerable."

"In the United States, freedom of religion has always included -- and should always include -- the right to live out one's religion and act according to one's conscience outside the walls of one's house of worship," the letter said.

"For over two decades, RFRA has protected Americans of all faiths from government coercion," it continued. "We have come together to write this letter with one specific plea: Do not amend or repeal RFRA, one of our nation's most vital legal protections for the religious freedom and rights of conscience of every person of faith."

Signers of the letter said they representing more than 100 million Americans. Besides the USCCB president, the signers included leaders of the Assemblies of God, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Rabbinical Council of America and the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Although the diverse religious leaders share very different perspectives on many issues, they said, they are all concerned by the potential consequences that any alteration to RFRA would create.

"Changing RFRA because some disagree with one particular application of the law would set a dark precedent by undermining the fundamental principle of religious freedom for all, even for those whose religious beliefs may be unpopular at the moment," the letter said. "Congress has never passed legislation with the specific purpose of reducing Americans' religious freedom. It should not consider doing so now."

Highlighting the good works that religious organizations are currently able to accomplish, the letter closed by compelling lawmakers to protect religious liberty within the U.S.

"The good works of these individuals of faith can be seen in soup kitchens, hospital, schools, hospices -- and yes, family-owned businesses," the letter said. "Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs and others all benefit when powerful government officials know that, as President Bill Clinton stated when he signed RFRA, government must meet 'a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone's free exercise of religion.'"

"Freedom of religion, like freedom of speech," it added, "must stand for all Americans, for all time."