Religious Liberty: Supreme Court Agrees to Consider Federal Religious Liberty Law

By Leaming, Jeremy | Church & State, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Religious Liberty: Supreme Court Agrees to Consider Federal Religious Liberty Law


Leaming, Jeremy, Church & State


When President Bill Clinton signed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in 2000, he issued a ringing endorsement of the principle undergirding the bill.

"Religious liberty," he said, "is a constitutional value of the highest order, and the Framers of the Constitution included protection for the free exercise of religion in the very first amendment. This act recognizes the importance the flee exercise of religion plays in our democratic society."

Now, just over lout years later, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether that federal religious liberty law is constitutional.

In October, the justices took for review three cases involving the religion clauses of the First Amendment, providing the high court with more opportunity to shape the debate over how hutch religious freedom our Constitution is set up to protect. Two cases that have received extensive news media coverage involve government display of the Ten Commandments.

But the high court also agreed Io hear a more complex case challenging RLUIPA, a federal law that many Americans argue is necessary to ensure religious freedom for all. RLUIPA proponents, including law professors, lawyers, civil rights advocates and watchdog groups, maintain that the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom is strong enough to encompass all beliefs, even those loathed and misunderstood by a majority. They argue that the First Amendment's protections mean that not only can government not favor religion, but that it must not enforce laws or take actions that significantly burden Americans' right to freely exercise their religious beliefs.

RLUIPA has an interesting history. It is a successor to an earlier and much broader federal law that the Supreme Court invalidated in a 1997 decision, Boerne v. Flores. The new federal statute states that in certain situations, land use regulations, such as zoning laws, and prison regulations cannot substantially burden religious liberty, unless the government can prove those regulations support a compelling interest. The regulations must also be enforced in ways least restrictive to religious freedom. (The earlier federal law, called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was much broader, applying to all government laws and actions.)

Both houses of Congress passed RLUIPA by unanimous consent. Supporters argued that without the federal law, zoning regulations that impose substantial burdens on houses of worship would too often be upheld and that prisoners, detainees and institutionalized mental health patients faced major burdens in practicing their religious beliefs.

Prominent legislators on both sides of the aisle hailed congressional enactment. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) called the measure "one of the most important bills of this new century." Fellow sponsor Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) called religious liberty a "bedrock principle" and praised the act for addressing "two of the most obvious threats to religious liberty."

The case the high court will review comes from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and will only deal with the part of RLUIPA that applies to prisoners and other institutionalized persons.

Inmates belonging to non-mainstream religions brought a lawsuit against the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections arguing that prison officials had infringed on their religious liberty by denying them access to religious literature, ceremonial items and group worship. The minority religions represented by the inmates included, Wicca, a pre-Christian religion focusing on nature; Asatru, a polytheistic religion including Thor as one of its gods; the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, a religion calling for the races to be separated; and Satanism.

Ohio officials responded to the inmates' lawsuit by arguing that RLUIPA unconstitutionally favors religious liberty over other fundamental rights.

A three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit agreed, ruling in Cutter v. …

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