Three years after the U.S. Supreme Court substantially weakened legal protections for religious activity, Congress has enacted new legislation that will in effect override the Court’s decision and restore strict judicial protections for the free exercise of religion. After a lengthy and tumultuous legislative process, Congress last month finally approved the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). President Clinton signed the act into law in November.

Commenting on the decline in respect for religious ideas in America, Clinton said at the signing, “Let us respect one another’s faiths, fight to the death to preserve the right of every American to practice whatever convictions he or she has, but bring our values back to the table of American discourse to heal our troubled land.”

A theologically and politically diverse coalition of 68 organizations pushed hard on behalf of RFRA and hailed its passage as a major victory for all religious groups.

“The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is the most significant piece of civil-rights legislation dealing with our religious liberty in our generation,” said J. Brent Walker, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee and a leading member of the coalition.

The protracted battle began in 1990 with the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling in Oregon Employment Division v. Smith.

Shortly after the decision, outraged religious groups helped draft RFRA, which was first introduced in Congress during the fall of 1990. The act says that government must show a concern of the strongest legal weight, or “compelling interest,” before interfering with religious activities. And if religion must be burdened through government action, the law calls for the “least restrictive means” in doing so.

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