While the New York Times may be upset about Monday’s Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision (see their editorial board’s calm, evenhanded op-ed on the issue “Limiting Rights: Imposing Religion On Workers“), in 1993 they were singing a different tune.
In a 1993 editorial cheering the House’s passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Times wrote that RFRA “reasserts a broadly accepted American concept of giving wide latitude to religious practices that many might regard as odd or unconventional” and asserted confidently that “the bill deserves passage.”
“Three years ago the Supreme Court threw away decades of precedent and watered down the religious liberty of all Americans,” it said, referring to 1990’s Employment Division v. Smith. “In a case involving the religious use of peyote by American Indians, the Court declared that states could criminalize all consumption of the substance without considering their laws’ impact on the free exercise of religion.”
Incensed about the court getting between a man and his mescaline, the Times explained that “before 1990, when law and religion collided, the Court had required government to show a compelling interest and to use the least intrusive method of enforcement. … Then suddenly, and unnecessarily, the Court declared in the peyote case that states could enforce generally applicable laws, even if they trampled on serious religious claims, so long as the laws weren’t deliberately aimed at religion.”
Luckily Chuck Schumer and Chris Cox came to the rescue, sponsoring the bill–which mandates that any law that might interfere with religious practice must meet strict scrutiny–in the House, where it passed by a voice vote without objection.
“With the Restoration Act, Congress asserts its own interest in protecting religious liberty. It’s a welcome antidote to the official insensitivity to religion the Court spawned in 1990,” the piece concludes.
Monday’s Times editorial called the Hobby Lobby ruling “deeply dismaying” and said that the case “swept aside accepted principles of corporate law and religious liberty to grant owners of closely held, for-profit companies an unprecedented right to impose their religious views on employees.” The decision was apparently “a radical departure from the court’s history of resisting claims for religious exemptions from neutral laws of general applicability when the exemptions would hurt other people.”
Because the contraception mandate did not prevent Hobby Lobby’s owners from worshiping or “advocating against coverage and use of the contraceptives they don’t like,” it argues, there was no substantial burden to their exercise of religion.
As Justice Samuel Alito explained in the majority opinion, however, “the circumstances under which it is wrong for a person to perform an act that is innocent itself but that has the effect of enabling or facilitating the commission of an immoral act by another” is “a difficult and important question of religion and moral philosophy. … Arrogating the authority to provide a binding national answer to this religious and philosophical question, HHS and the principal dissent in effect tell the plaintiffs that their beliefs are flawed. For good reason, we have repeatedly refused to take such a step.”