By Richard H. Weisberg
July 20, 2014 OUP Academic - The recent Hobby Lobby decision, which ruled that corporations with certain religious beliefs were no longer required to provide insurance that covers contraception for their female employees — as mandated by Obamacare — hinged on a curious piece of legislation from 1993. In a law that was unanimously passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) stated that “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.” The intention of RFRA was to offer an opportunity for religious people to challenge ordinary laws, state or federal, that had some adverse impact on their faith. The RFRA was a direct response to a case three years earlier, when the Supreme Court decided that laws that applied to everybody were acceptable even if they burdened a religious community. RFRA was Congress’ scream of protest to the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence.
By passing the RFRA in 1993, Congress was trying to steal the Supreme Court’s thunder. It was not fixing physical infrastructures; it was fixing a fellow branch of government. It was not over-ruling what it considered to be a faulty judicial reading of its own statutes; it was changing an interpretation of the Constitution itself. But isn’t the Court, for better or worse, the ultimate authority on the First Amendment? Didn’t the principle of separation of powers prevent the legislative branch from amending, by mere majority vote within its own chambers, the Constitution as understood by the justices at any given time?