Conflicts continually arise between individuals, faith groups, the courts, and the government over religious freedom. Some common
Some religious groups teach that parents should not immunize children against
childhood diseases. Others urge their members to use spiritual healing methods instead of medical science for themselves and their children. This conflicts with the state’s interest in preserving public health by limiting the spread of diseases and preventing of child and infant deaths.
The Amish and some other religious groups are opposed to decorations and ornaments. This can conflict with
the state’s safety requirements that slow-moving vehicles display lights and signs.
- A lumber
interest might want to create a road through an area that Natives consider sacred. During
the 1980’s, the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) considered a number of such cases. A trend appeared in
which the court appeared to give less importance to religious considerations.
In 2012, Health and Human Services issued new regulations that required companies that provide health insurance to include coverage for sterilization procedures and birth control medication in the plans without a copay. They were also required to charge the employer the same amount, irrespective of whether the employee chooses or does not choose to use the procedures. That way, the employer would not be paying additional amounts whenever the employee makes use of the coverage. Churches were exempt from this regulation. However, businesses, institutions and services run by faith groups were not exempt. Catholic hospitals, universities, schools, agencies, etc. who hired employees of different faiths — and none — would have to allow their employees to freely choose whether to use birth control or sterilization. Both practices violate Catholic Church teaching; however, they are very commonly used by their employees. One survey showed that 98% of Catholic women had used a medication or practice that the Church condemns.
Allowing the employees to choose freely was viewed by the Church as a restriction on their religious freedom. It was viewed by many of the Church’s employees as the freedom to act on their moral, ethical, and religious choices of action. More details.
During the early 2010’s many lawsuits based on religious freedom resulted from conflicts between employees of conservative religious schools and and the employer. Some examples occurred when the individual:
- Formed a loving, committed relationship with a person of the same-gender and later entered into a legal same-sex marriage; or
- Were infertile, and were treated in a fertility clinic with an in-vitro fertilization procedure in order to conceive a child; or
Was a woman who performed the same work as males at the school, and yet was paid less in violation of the federal Equal Pay Act. The school maintained that their interpretations of the Bible caused them to believe that husbands must play the lead role in the family and were primarily responsible for financial support of their wives and children. Thus they concluded that men had need for a higher wage than did women.
In each case, conflict arose from religious beliefs, either by the employer, or employee, or both who felt that their religious freedom was being unjustly restricted.
Back in 1990, SCOTUS issued a very important decision in the case of Employment Division vs.
Smith. It involved the right of an native American to follow his religious traditions and heritage
which involved smoking an hallucinogenic substance. In deciding against the individual who launched the lawsuit, he court established a very important principle: that governments
could burden (restrict) religious freedom, as long as the law was neutral and applied to
all persons equally. Later, this decision prompted many lower courts to permit additional
government restrictions on religious freedom.
Dozens of groups concerned with religious freedom were alarmed by the SCOTUS decision. They joined together to form a Coalition
for the Free Exercise of Religion. Their goal was to reverse this gradual erosion of
basic religious freedoms in the United States. In an unprecedented show of unanimity,
organizations representing very diverse belief systems joined forces. The list includes
some interesting pairings of groups:
Partly as a result of pressure from the Coalition, the US Congress passed the Religious
Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in late 1993. Overwhelming bipartisan support was shown.
(Reference 42 U.S. Code 2000bb). Its key clauses are:
“compelling interest” to do so. And then, the government must select a method
that results in the least possible interference with religious freedoms of individuals,
churches and other organizations. This is a very onerous burden on the government, and
applies to many laws .
In summary, the law stated that religious freedom shall not be limited except when a government can prove a
This law had a major influence in over a hundred court decisions since it was enacted late in
An interesting case (City of Boerne v. Flores, No. 95-2074) arose in 1996. It involved
the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Antonio, TX. The city of Boerne TX refused to issue a
construction permit which would have allowed the church to expand into a historical
district. The expansion was needed because of an increase in the size of the congregation.
The church sued under the RFRA; the federal judge determined that the act was
unconstitutional. It has since been reviewed by several appeals courts who have ruled the
act constitutional. In mid October, 1996, the Supreme Court of the US agreed to rule on
the case. They issued their ruling on 1997-JUN-25, declaring the law to be
unconstitutional. The vote was 6 to 3. That vote was an exception to the usual 4 to 5 vote that is usually seen on cases related to religion, morality or ethics.
Congress will then consider a new RFRA-type bill that might guarantee religious rights while
staying within constitutional boundaries. Senator Edward Kennedy (D, MA)said: “We
cannot take this ‘no’ from the Supreme Court as the final answer.” In the
meantime, several states have passed a law very similar to the original RFRA which are probably also