Religious Freedom Act Faces Review by the Supreme Court

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court set the stage for a key ruling on religious freedom by agreeing Tuesday to review a 1993 law aimed at curbing governmental interference with the spiritual lives of Americans.

In taking on a case that began as a zoning dispute between a church and a Texas city, the justices said they would review the constitutionality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The law gives more weight to claims that actions taken by government sometimes improperly restrict religious freedom.

The court's ruling, expected by July, could clarify the boundaries between legitimate governmental restrictions and undue infringement on religious freedom. 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. But the 1993 law has been particularly unpopular with prison officials in many states. They say it caused a flood of suits in which inmates challenged regulation of apparel, diet and other aspects of life behind bars as violations of their religious beliefs. The 1993 law on religious freedom was enacted in response to a 1990 Supreme Court decision that said laws otherwise neutral toward religion were not unconstitutional just because they might infringe on some people's religious beliefs. The 1990 decision was in an Oregon case about American Indian rituals. The court found participants had no constitutional right to take the hallucinogenic drug peyote as a religious practice. A broad coalition of religious and civil rights groups contended that the court, in the rationale it used in the peyote case, had turned its back on vigorously protecting religious rights. …


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