Court Blocks Religious Freedom Act Justices Condemn Congressional Intrusion into States' Power

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court struck down on Wednesday a new federal law that was designed to expand and protect the freedom of religion.

By a 6-3 vote, the justices said Congress exceeded its power, intruded on the authority of local officials and overreacted when it enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

That law, passed with little debate and no dispute, said government officials at all levels must bend their rules and make special exemptions for persons whose actions are based on their religion. These claims have ranged widely. They include: * A Roman Catholic parish that seeks to rebuild its church in a city's historic preservation zone - the test case Wednesday. * An Amish family that does not want to put bright safety markings on its horse-drawn buggy. * A Muslim inmate who wants to pray during a prison work detail. * A Christian landlady in Chico, Calif., who refuses to rent to unmarried couples. In 1990, the Supreme Court looked at such claims and decided to narrow its interpretation of the First Amendment's "free exercise of religion." Religious adherents such as these should receive the same, but no better treatment, than everyone else, the court ruled in Oregon vs. Smith. With the 1993 law, Congress acted to restore the court's previous ruling, which required special treatment for religious claimants. The First Amendment demands giving unique deference to claims based on religious faith, lawmakers said. Signed With A Flourish Soon after taking office, President Bill Clinton signed the new measure in an elaborate White House ceremony featuring Sikhs, Muslims, American Indians and others representing the nation's minority faiths. But the justices struck back Wednesday, nullifying the law. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, "The power to interpret the Constitution remains with the Judiciary. …