Court Ponders Broad Religious Freedom Issues

By Kinkopf, David W. | National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 1997 | Go to article overview

Court Ponders Broad Religious Freedom Issues

Kinkopf, David W., National Catholic Reporter

Could your city government prohibit your parish from expanding its church building or its social outreach programs based on zoning or historic preservation laws? Could your county government criminalize the consumption of alcohol and thereby prohibit the use of wine at a Catholic Mass? The Supreme Court is poised to decide these questions and the course of religious freedom in this country.

On Feb. 19, the Court heard arguments in City of Boerne v. Flores after the city told a Catholic parish it could not expand its existing church building to accommodate an increase in church attendance because part of the church's facade was located in the city's "historic district." The parish and its archbishop sued, relying on a sweeping 1993 law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. By enacting RFRA, Congress prohibited any level of federal, state or local government from substantially burdening the exercise of religion without a compelling interest.

The city countered that Congress violated the Constitution by enacting such a broad statute. If the city is correct and RFRA is unconstitutional, religious individuals and organizations will be left with little recourse in challenging general laws that may indirectly burden or even flatly prohibit religious activities. Thus, the Supreme Court's decision, expected at any time, will dictate the fate of religious freedom disputes, including the religious rights of children in public schools, the religious rights of prisoners and religious discrimination against homosexuals.

RFRA was the result of lobbying by an unprecedented alliance of religious groups, including the United States Catholic Conference, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Baptist Joint Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Peyote decision

These groups were outraged by a 1990 decision, Employment Division v. Smith, involving the use of the hallucinogenic drug peyote in a Native American religious ceremony. In the Smith decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Oregon's general criminal law against the possession of peyote did not violate the First Amendment's protection of religious freedom even though the law criminalized religious conduct.

The split decision in Smith, authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, fundamentally altered the manner in which the courts looked at religious freedom claims. Prior to Smith, courts required governments to make exceptions to laws that burdened religious exercise, unless the government had a compelling reason in not granting a religious exemption. After Smith, courts no longer demanded a compelling reason before allowing the government to prohibit religious conduct indirectly.

As long as the government did not single out religious use specifically, it could prohibit actions regardless of the effect on an individual's religiously motivated conduct. Thus, under the Court's view of the First Amendment, a neutral and generally applicable criminal law that prohibited the consumption of alcohol could be enforced against a Catholic priest and the communicants who drank wine during the Eucharist.

Justice Scalia disappointed those who hoped he would find broad constitutional protection for religious conduct because of his conservative philosophy and his strong, publicly expressed Catholic faith. Scalia's consistent belief in a very limited role for the U.S. Constitution won the day at the expense of religious freedom. In Scalia's view, a legislature can choose to exempt religious uses from a particular criminal prohibition, but government is not required to do so by the Constitution.

The Smith decision angered many who believe that people of faith, particularly members of minority religions without political clout, require broad protection from government regulations that burden or prohibit religious conduct. A nearly unanimous Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as an attempt to "restore," by means of a statute, the pre-Smith constitutional standard that gave broad protection to religious freedom. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Court Ponders Broad Religious Freedom Issues


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.