There is some poetic coincidence in the fact that an Oklahoma company, Hobby Lobby, is at the center of a major U.S. Supreme Court case over a federal law protecting religious freedom.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in 1993 because Congress was upset the Supreme Court declined to endorse a religious exemption for the use of peyote by members of the Native American Church, which was founded in Oklahoma.
In a case from the state of Oregon, the court ruled that peyote, even if used as a sacrament, is an illegal substance and people could justifiably be denied unemployment benefits if they were fired from their jobs for taking the drug.
“We have never held that an individual's religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate,’’ Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the majority opinion.
Granting members of the Native American Church a religious exemption from the law against taking peyote, Scalia wrote, would “open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind,” ranging from compulsory military service, the payment of taxes, manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws, traffic laws, minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races.
“The First Amendment's protection of religious liberty does not require this,’’ Scalia wrote.
The late Sen. Edward Kennedy, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, joined with Sen. Orrin Hatch, a conservative Republican from Utah, to sponsor the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the Senate.
They and a broad coalition of outside groups that rarely see eye to eye — the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Evangelicals, for instance — worried that the court’s ruling in the peyote case would make it easier for government to restrict religious practices.
The intent of the bill was to restore the high court’s historical standards that governments had to meet for restricting religious expression.
It passed unanimously in the House and overwhelmingly in the Senate.
As originally passed, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act also applied to states.
But the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law in 1997 in a Texas case and it was amended to apply only to the federal government.
Many states, including Oklahoma, have passed their own versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act; a proposed change to Arizona’s law was recently the source of a national controversy over whether lawmakers there were encouraging discrimination against gays and lesbians.
The broad coalition that existed when the federal law was passed has splintered over Hobby Lobby’s claim the company is protected from the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to cover contraceptives for women in health insurance policies.
Lawmakers have split along partisan lines — with Democrats defending the contraception mandate and Republicans siding with Hobby Lobby.
The ACLU and National Association of Evangelicals — allies when the law was passed — are now on opposite sides, with the ACLU backing the U.S. government and the evangelicals supporting Hobby Lobby.