The ‘Splainer: RFRA and the Hobby Lobby case

(RNS) What is this RFRA of which the Supremes speak? Stay with us and there’s ice cream, cake, a puppy and even hallucinogenic drugs in it for you.

The ‘Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do”) is an occasional online feature in which Kimberly Winston and other RNS staff give you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at a cocktail party.

Today, the Supreme Court ruled that closely held corporations cannot be compelled to provide contraceptive coverage that violates the religious beliefs of their owners. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies to regulations that govern such companies.

President Bill Clinton signs the Religious Freedom Restoration Act at the White House's South Lawn on Nov. 16, 1993.

President Bill Clinton signs the Religious Freedom Restoration Act on the White House’s South Lawn on Nov. 16, 1993.

So, what is this RFRA of which the Supremes speak? Stay with us and there’s ice cream, a puppy and even hallucinogenic drugs in it for you.

Q: What is RFRA, and why does it sound like a small barking dog?

A: RFRA stands for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It was passed almost unanimously in 1993 and was signed into law by President Clinton. It applies only to the federal government, not the states, though some states have their own versions. RFRA is intended to protect religion from the federal government. As for why the acronym sounds like a small yappy dog, think of it this way — that small dog is saying “HEY, YOU, GOVERNMENT! DON”T MESS WITH RELIGIOUS FREEDOM OR I’LL BITE YOU.”

Q: Wait a minute. The First Amendment states that Congress shall not pass laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion. How did we even end up with RFRA?

A: RFRA was a response to an unpopular 1990 Supreme Court decision called Employment Division v. Smith. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled against two Native Americans who had been denied state unemployment benefits after they checked positive for mescaline, the active hallucinogenic compound found in peyote cactus. Members of the Native American Church use peyote in their religious ceremonies. The Supremes’ ruling against the Native Americans’ religious practice really ticked off First Amendment watchdogs of all kinds — liberal, conservative, evangelical, Jewish and secular. They lobbied Congress and the result was RFRA.

Q: OK, so now we have our puppy and our hallucinogenic drugs. Where’s the ice cream and cake?

A: Well, there’s a test for RFRA, but one with a fun name — the Sherbert Test. Kinda like ice cream. The Sherbert Test says that if the government wants to “burden,” or hinder, someone’s religious practice, two criteria must be met. First, the burden must be “necessary for the furtherance of a compelling government interest”; second, the burden must be “the least restrictive way” to further that government interest.

Q: Can you speak English, not legalese?

A: Basically, this is what RFRA means: If the government wants to curb your religious practice, it has to prove that it has such a compelling reason that not doing so would keep it from governing properly. And if the government is going to curb someone’s religious practice, it must do so in the least intrusive way possible.

Q: OK. So what does that have to do with Hobby Lobby and today’s Supreme Court decision?

A: Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. asked for an exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that they provide the full range of contraception coverage to their employees. The owners of Hobby Lobby are evangelical Christians and the owners of Conestoga are Mennonites. They argued their religious objections to emergency contraception should be protected under RFRA.

Q: Wait. Companies can practice religion?

A: That’s the question at the heart of this case: Can a corporation be said to have religious practices? In this ruling the judges said yes, corporations, which are composed of people, can be said to have religious practices and sometimes those practices are worth protecting under RFRA.

Q: So now what? Is this a big deal case or just a minor hit for the Supremes?

A:  It’s a big deal. The win by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga means the courts might see a lot more challenges from for-profit corporations to laws they feel conflict with their owners’ religious beliefs. But the court has also carefully said that its ruling in this case applies only to contraception coverage, so religious employers should not see this as an invitation to challenge the Affordable Care Act on vaccines and blood transfusions, both of which some religious people object to.

YS/AMB END WINSTON