OU Institute for Public Affairs

Primary Voter's Guide - Election 2000

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Religious Liberty Protection Act

The Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA) is a bill that protects religious practices from governmental interference.  RLPA prohibits the government from placing a substantial burden on religious practices unless it is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling interest such as health or safety.

In 1997 the Supreme Court removed certain legal protections for religious freedom when it struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), allowing governmental policies and regulations to substantially and unnecessarily burden religious practices.


  • A small church in Florida is ordered to stop its ministry of feeding the homeless.

  • Orthodox Jews in a Los Angeles suburb cannot practice their religion because an ordinance bars houses of worship within walking distance of the area.

  • A county council in South Carolina banned Home Bible studies but not Tupperware meetings or football parties.

  • Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., which had for years run a program to feed the homeless was notified by the Board of Zoning Adjustment that it would not be able to continue the feeding program in its new building.  The church successfully brought suit in Federal District Court under RFRA before the law was struck down.

RLPA relies on three powers of Congress as defined in the Constitution: the Spending Power, the Commerce Clause, and the 14th Amendment.  Under RLPA, state or local officials may not substantially burden religious exercise in any state program or activity that receives federal financial assistance, or in any case in which the burden on religious exercise or removal of the burden would affect commerce, unless it is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling state interest such as health or safety.  RLPA also simplifies litigation of free exercise violations, as defined by the Supreme Court, by shifting the burden of persuasion to the government on most elements of the claim after the claimant makes out a prima facie case.  RLPA also specifically addresses problems of religious institutions substantially burdened by land-use regulations.  RLPA is designed to give as much protection for religious freedom as possible through a federal law.

More than 80 religious groups and civil rights organizations — including Family Research Council, Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Episcopal Church, American Jewish Congress, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, Focus on the Family, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops — have joined together to support RLPA.  There is broad, bipartisan support for the bill, as there was for its predecessor, RFRA.  RFRA was supported unanimously in the House and by nearly every Senator when it was passed in 1993.

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