Commemorating Twenty Years of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act
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From its founding to present day, the United States has deeply valued religious liberty: the right of every individual to practice their religion as they interpret it – or to not be religious – without involvement or oversight from the government. The Reform Jewish Movement has been particularly outspoken on this issue, understanding deeply that religious liberty has allowed our faith to flourish in America.
On Thursday, advocates, religious leaders, scholars, and people passionate about this topic gathered at the Newseum for “Restored or Endangered? The State of Free Exercise of Religion in America,” a symposium celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Rabbi David Saperstein, Director and Counsel of the RAC and a critical player in the passage of RFRA, participated in the first panel of the day on the necessity of RFRA and what has happened in the subsequent years on the judicial and legislative levels. The other panelists, all of whom were deeply involved in the passage of RFRA in 1993, included Oliver Thomas, a religious liberty attorney and chair of the coalition that helped draft and enact RFRA; Mark Chopko, Chair of the Nonprofit and Religious Organizations practice group at Stradley Ronon Stevens and Young; and Steve McFarland, vice president and chief legal officer at World Vision.
Not only was the panel interesting and informative, but it was inspiring to be reminded that an extraordinarily broad coalition of religious groups and civil rights organizations came together to pass RFRA. It was a clear reminder that we can work to find common ground and that mutual respect can lead to great success.
The symposium was brimming with exemplary speakers and panels, highlighting and contextualizing the crucial contemporary questions on free exercise of religion. Panelists at the “Religious Liberty and the Contraceptive Mandate in the Affordable Care Act,” discussion laid out the arguments on both sides of the many for-profit and non-profit cases, at least one of which will be heard during this Supreme Court term (the most well-known is Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius). The Union for Reform Judaism, Central Conference of American Rabbis, and Women of Reform Judaism signed an amicus brief when the case was being argued in the 10th Circuit Court.
The final panel covered pressing questions about religious liberty and how we talk about it in the context of political polarization, Islamophobia, media bias and sensationalism, and religious exemptions in legislation, particularly contraception and LBGT equality. The RAC co-sponsored the symposium with the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Christian Legal Society, the American Jewish Committee, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The day was a celebration of the work of many people in the room and around the country who have dedicated their lives and work to protecting the cherished freedom of religious liberty.