by Jorge Gomez • 5 min read
Sen. Orrin Hatch, who passed away on April 23 at age 88, left a profound legacy on American politics during his 42-year Senate career. He represented Utah from 1977 to 2019, making him the longest-serving Republican senator in our country’s history.
Among his many contributions, Sen. Hatch made an incredible impact for religious liberty. Of the more than 750 bills he sponsored, two major ones stand out, because they were critical in safeguarding our First Freedom: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
Sen. Hatch co-authored RFRA with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. The legislation was one of the most critical bipartisan efforts of the last 30 years. It passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress. It was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
Nearly three decades later, RFRA remains one of the most important federal laws that protects our right to live out our faith. The law says the government must accommodate people’s religious practices when it can and gives citizens their day in court when they believe the government has violated their rights.
RFRA has been a bulwark when religious Americans have had to fight in court in major First Amendment cases. For example, RFRA has been a staple of First Liberty’s legal defense on behalf of our 35 U.S. Navy SEAL clients, who are facing the career-ending threats and punishment for requesting a religious accommodation to the military vaccine mandate. We explain that the Biden administration is violating RFRA by treating service members of faith more harshly and forcing them to violate their religious beliefs.
RFRA was also central in the landmark victories for religious freedom in multiple U.S. Supreme Court cases, such as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) and Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania (2020).
Sen. Hatch considered RFRA to be among his most important accomplishments:
“If I was to pick one bill that I love more than anything else it’s the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. We could not pass that today…That has protected religious freedom like never before. It’s something you would think you wouldn’t have to protect, but believe me you have to protect it.”
Sen. Hatch was also the principal author for RLUIPA, which passed unanimously in both houses of Congress and was signed into law by President Clinton in 2000.
This law protects houses of worship and religious organizations from state interference in their property through zoning laws. It prohibits local governments from enacting or applying land use regulations that treat religious groups less favorably than non-religious groups.
First Liberty has used RLUIPA to defend and successfully restore religious liberty for houses of worship across the country. For example, this includes our recent victory on behalf of Light of the World Gospel Ministries and numerous wins on behalf of Jewish congregations facing zoning discrimination from local officials.
Beyond protecting religious freedom at home Sen. Hatch also advocated to defend it abroad. He supported the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998, which created an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom within the Department of State and established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan body that investigates religious freedom around the world and holds hearings to educate Congress and the public about instances of religious persecution.
An accomplished author, Sen. Hatch frequently wrote about religious freedom. In a 2014 op-ed, he emphasized why it’s worth fighting for this fundamental right:
“Religious freedom has been sewn into our country’s very fiber since before it was founded…One religious society after another came to these shores not only to believe as they chose, but to act and to live according to those beliefs. That is why the principle enshrined in the First Amendment is the “exercise of religion,” which encompasses both belief and activity.
The majority of people around the world live in countries where religious freedom is severely limited. Governments regulate who may express their religious faith, when they may practice the tenets of their faith and where and how they may act according to their religious convictions. That is not America’s heritage and it must not be our future.”
People of faith—and truly, all Americans—owe a great debt of gratitude to Sen. Hatch. His dedication, commitment and decades of service to our nation deservedly earned him many awards, including our highest civilian recognition, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to him by President Donald Trump in 2018. We honor him for his principled leadership and legacy of bipartisan lawmaking—for being a staunch defender of both faith and freedom. Without him, religious liberty in America would not be what it is today.