High Court Asked to Rule on Religious Freedom Law

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court was asked Wednesday to decide whether a 1993 federal law protecting religious freedom violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

The arguments came in a challenge to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a measure that President Bill Clinton strongly supported and signed.

The law prevents federal, state and local governments from restricting religious practices unless they can prove a "compelling interest" to justify their actions. Even then, they must adopt the least restrictive means possible. The city of Boerne, Texas, rejected a petition by St. Peter the Apostle Roman Catholic Church to expand its 74-year-old sanctuary on the grounds that the church is in a historic district. The town is near San Antonio. The archbishop sued, claiming denial of the construction permit violated the law, but the city said the law was unconstitutional. A federal judge struck down the law, but a U.S. appeals court upheld it, leading to an appeal to the Supreme Court. Arguing for the city, Marci Hamilton said the law shifted the balance of power between church and state in favor of religious groups. ***BEGIN THREE STAR TEXT*** "This case is not about religious freedom. This case is about federal power," she said. ***END THREE STAR TEXT*** Ohio State Solicitor Jeffrey Sutton also urged the court to strike down the law, saying, "It creates a new standard of review." He said the states, rather than Congress, should and would protect religious rights. But Douglas Laycock, arguing for the church, said the court should uphold the law. "Congress has always understood it has the right to protect constitutional rights." U.S. Solicitor General Walter Dellinger also supported the law, saying it was needed to protect the rights of minority religious groups that are often treated less favorably than more popular religions. …