Court Strikes Down RFRA

The Christian Century, July 2, 1997 | Go to article overview

Court Strikes Down RFRA

To the dismay of many of the country's religious leaders, the U.S. Supreme Court on June 25 overturned the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, contending that Congress unconstitutionally usurped power belonging to federal courts and the states when it passed the measure. The four-year-old law, supported by a broad range of religious groups, stipulated that the government must show a compelling interest before it could interfere with religious practices. It was passed in reaction to a 1990 Supreme Court decision that permitted government officials to overlook the compelling-interest criterion. But by a vote of 6-3 the high court ruled that its decision takes priority.

"It is this court's precedent . . . which must control," wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for the majority. In cases that involve interpretation of the Constitution "power . . . remains in the judiciary," Kennedy argued. Justices who joined the majority decision ranged from those generally considered judicial conservatives, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, to those who are generally considered the most liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens. Dissenting were Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Stephen G. Breyer and David H. Souter.

Members of the coalition that supported RFRA expressed sadness and disappointment. The decision, they said, removes legal protection for religious groups whose practices conflict with state and local regulations. "Without RFRA, the religious liberty of every American is in peril," warned J. Brent Walker, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. "Basically, what the court has done is to sacrifice religious freedom on the altar of states' rights." Oliver Thomas, the National Council of Churches' special counsel for religious and civil liberties, said that the court's decision "will likely be remembered as the Dred Scott of church-state law"--a reference to the notorious 1857 Supreme Court ruling that a slave's residence in free territory did not mean that the slave thus became a free person. "Church schools are now vulnerable to new regulations," Thomas said. "Church buildings . . . are now subject to new restrictions on the use of their property."

Walker and others said there was so much support for RFRA across the religious spectrum that they could not think of a single religious opponent. Groups that expressed opposition to the court's decision included Reform and Orthodox Jews, the United Church of Christ, Southern Baptists, the NCC, the U.S. Catholic Conference, the Church of Scientology, the liberal Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the conservative Center for Law and Religious Freedom of the Christian Legal Society. "We lost about as bad as we can lose," remarked Forest Montgomery, general counsel of the National Association of Evangelicals.

The decision came in a case stemming from the desire of officials at St. Peter the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in Boerne, Texas, to rebuild their 74-year-old sanctuary to accommodate a growing congregation. The city prevented the expansion because the church is in an historic district and renovations would violate local preservation laws. The church sued the city in 1994, arguing that the preservation code violated RFRA, and an appellate court agreed. But the city appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

Tony Cummins, pastor of the church, said he was disappointed by the decision but will continue to pursue his church's case using options other than RFRA. "It is expensive to take on a government and to say that they are creating a burden," he said. "RFRA sort of leveled the field. . . . Now the balance has been upset in favor of the government." But Boerne Mayor Patrick Heath said the decision means that all institutions in a community must cooperate with local ordinances and "one does not dominate the other. …

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