Supreme Court to Decide Fate of Law Dealing with Religion

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON (AP) -- By agreeing to study what once would have been an everyday zoning dispute between a Roman Catholic church and a Texas city, the Supreme Court set the stage Tuesday for a key ruling on religious freedom.

The justices said they will decide the constitutionality of a 1993 law -- the Religious Freedom Restoration Act -- that makes it harder for government to interfere with religious practices. The court's ruling, expected by July, could clarify just when government is allowed to do so.

A church in Boerne, Texas, invoked the law after the city thwarted its attempt to build an addition. The church argued that Boerne's refusal to issue the permit was an example of governmental action banned by the law. City officials, in turn, mounted a constitutional attack -- contending that in passing the law, Congress unlawfully usurped power from state and local governments and from the Supreme Court itself. "What's at stake is really any meaningful expression of faith for all Americans," said Melissa Rogers of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, one of many religious groups that pushed for the act's passage. "We think the law is both constitutional and vital to religious freedom," she said. But the 1993 law has been particularly unpopular with prison officials in many states. They say it caused a flood of lawsuits in which inmates challenged regulation of apparel, diet and other aspects of life behind bars as violations of their religious beliefs. In other action Tuesday, the court: * Let stand a never-enforced 1991 Michigan court order that bars Dr. Jack Kevorkian from helping people commit suicide. * Agreed to decide in a New York case whether states may tax the income of hospitals run by employee welfare benefit plans. * Voted to decide whether a Florida state Senate district in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area unlawfully favors black voters. * Ordered a federal appeals court to reconsider a ruling that had barred California's use of poison gas in executions. The 1993 law on religious freedom was enacted in response to a 1990 Supreme Court decision that said laws otherwise neutral toward religion are not unconstitutional just because they may infringe on some people's religious beliefs. The 1990 decision came in an Oregon case about Native American rituals. …