What is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act?

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was enacted in 1993 to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).  In the Smith case, the court ruled that religious freedom alone was not guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution without an additional constitutional claim, such as equal protection.  The court found that although there was a federal regulation allowing the religious use of the schedule 1 controlled substance peyote, the state of Oregon did not allow any use of peyote and could constitutionally deny the religious use of peyote in Oregon.  The ruling in Smith was that laws neutral on their face toward religion and generally applicable to everyone do not violate the First Amendment if they burden religious exercise.  In response Congress passed RFRA to reverse that ruling.  See, The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, Pub. L. No. 103-141, 107 Stat. 1488 (November 16, 1993).

Reacting to RFRA, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997), held RFRA unconstitutional as applied to the states, basically upholding its decision in the Smith case and invalidating its application to the states while leaving RFRA intact as far as the federal government is concerned.  So, this is the first reason that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has issued guidelines for religious exemptions to the federal Controlled Substances Act under RFRA.

Following the decision in Flores, the court’s first decision on the religious use of schedule 1 controlled substances was in Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal (2006).  In O Centro, the court found there was no compelling interest in federal interference with the shipment of a schedule 1 controlled substance from South America to the state of New Mexico.  So, this is the second reason that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has issued guidelines for religious exemptions to the federal Controlled Substances Act under RFRA.

What was unique about the O Centro case, unlike the Smith case, was that there was no interference with the religious practice of O Centro by the state of New Mexico.

To draw an analogy to my own situation, the Iowa Supreme Court has specifically denied religious protection for the religious use of cannabis in State v. Olsen (1984).  RFRA does not apply to state actions, so the Smith case determines the outcome.  Beginning in 2018, the state of Iowa plans to produce and distribute cannabis extracts in the state of Iowa, which means the Iowa law is no longer neutral toward religion or generally applicable to everyone.

Finally, because O Centro was actively practicing the religion without any interference from the state of New Mexico, O Centro had an injury that could be redressed by the federal courts.  In comparison. the injury in State v. Olsen would first have to be redressed favorably by the Iowa Supreme Court before a federal claim could be made under the Smith ruling.  We’ll see what happens next:

Olsen v. Iowa Board of Pharmacy, No. CVCV056841 (Iowa District Court, Polk County)

One Reply to “What is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act?”

  1. Someone placed a comment on my Facebook page telling me he could predict the outcome of my RFRA claim, but my article actually explains why I don’t have a RFRA claim and why I am not defending myself in a criminal case.  If you do have a RFRA claim, it’s not as simple as it might seem at first.  Here is a copy of the decision in his case, and another one from the Virgin Islands that tell me some preparation ahead of time would be a good idea rather than getting arrested and trying to put the claim together after the fact.

    United States v. Barnes, 677 Fed. Appx. 271, 2017 FED App. 0075N (6th Cir.)

    Virgin Islands v. Edward Felix, Case No. ST-17-CR-203 (Sept. 11, 2018)

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