In a stunning setback for America's religious community, the United States Supreme Court yesterday held that an act of Congress designed to protect the free exercise of religion is unconstitutional.
The court ruled 6 to 3 that Congress exceeded its power in passing the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The court implied the act would create havoc in the legal system and be disruptive and "intrusive" to government in general.
The ruling holds implications for a wide range of religious activities - everything from spiritual healing to church-run homeless shelters to the wearing of yarmulkes in the workplace.
The decision also may put people of faith - especially those whose religious practices or beliefs are not in the mainstream - on the shakiest legal footing in modern constitutional history. It deeply disappoints a 90-member coalition of religious groups that supported RFRA, an act specifically designed to counter a 1990 Supreme Court ruling that sharply curtailed religious liberty.
Since its passage in 1993, RFRA has been used to defend an enormous range of religious rights. It has been instrumental in cases concerning individuals' observances of the Sabbath, zoning permits for churches, Muslims' wearing of head coverings, and religious practices including healing through prayer. Yesterday's decision makes it more difficult to defend such religious practices in a secular society.
In writing for the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated in strong terms that RFRA exceeds the powers extended to Congress through the 14th Amendment. Through that amendment, Congress has passed other laws designed to extend rights to minority groups, such as the Voting Rights Act and protections for handicapped individuals and pregnant women.
RFRA laws ensure "intrusion at every level of government, displacing laws and prohibiting official actions of almost every description and regardless of subject matter," Justice Kennedy wrote in an opinion joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Clarence Thomas, John Paul Stevens, and Antonin Scalia.
'First Freedom' denuded
In a blistering response, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs stated that the court "nullified ... the most important piece of legislation affecting our religious liberty since the First Amendment itself.... Our 'First Freedom' is not only no longer first, it is barely a freedom at all."
While originally laughed off by some in the legal community as a form of special-issue pleading by religious interest groups, in recent weeks scholars have been calling the RFRA case, known as Boerne v. Flores, one of the meatiest of the term.
This characterization stems partly from the ruling's impact on religious practice, since it leaves individuals, churches, and synagogues without the legal recourse of special religious exemptions.
It also is partly due to the fact that RFRA was a direct challenge to a Supreme Court ruling. The court majority that emerged yesterday had to find a way to keep intact popular laws also covered by the 14th Amendment, while at the same time overturning RFRA. The court argued that unlike previous laws, such as antidiscrimination laws in the South, Congress had not established that a pattern of discrimination against churches and religious individuals had existed before it passed RFRA.
RFRA was passed by Congress as a response to a sweeping 1990 Supreme Court decision called Smith v. Employment Division. That ruling, on the surface a dispute over an Indian tribe's use of peyote in a ritual ceremony, abruptly abolished established protections for the free exercise of faith.
Prior to Smith, the state could not prosecute the exercise of religious faith unless it had a "compelling interest" to do so - and could show why it was necessary for reasons of public health and safety. After the Smith decision, individuals and churches had to show why they should not be prosecuted for not complying with laws that might offend their faith - a far tougher standard.
Dissenters in the case included Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who insisted on reading her separate dissent from the bench. She stated the court should have reheard the entire Smith case. Other dissenters included Justice David Souter and Justice Stephen Breyer.
Roots of the dispute
The ruling grew from a dispute over a Roman Catholic church outside San Antonio, Texas, that wanted to expand its building to accommodate an enormous overflow of worshippers. The city council of Boerne, Texas, said no.
The faade of the church, imitation Spanish architecture from the 1930s, bordered a historic preservation zone. Church officials agreed to preserve the building's quaint faade, but the city decided instead to place the church in the preservation zone.
At that point, the church decided to sue the city under the new RFRA law, and the case began its journey to the Supreme Court.
US religious leaders are now groping for ways to find relief. Possible actions to counter the ruling include a constitutional amendment, efforts to pass RFRA-like laws in the 50 state capitals, or even seeking a reversal of Smith - similar to the court's reversal earlier this week in a landmark church-state case out of New York in which the court will allow public funds to be used for teaching in parochial schools.