Supreme Court Nixes Religious Freedom Restoration Act; ACLU Says Decision Erodes First Amendment

June 25, 1997 12:00 am

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Wednesday, June 25, 1997

WASHINGTON -- In a case raising important questions about religious liberty and the power of Congress, the United States Supreme Court today said that Congress overstepped its power to legislate constitutional rights when it enacted a federal law designed to protect religious observances from government interference.

Writing for a 6 to 3 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act did not provide a remedy for unconstitutional acts, which would have been an appropriate act of Congress, but represented a substantive change in constitutional rights -- a power he said is reserved for the judicial branch of government.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which supported the law in a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion, disagreed with the Court's assessment of the law, and said that the ruling will allow government to more easily infringe on religion liberty.

"This is a disappointing ruling that further erodes the constitutional protection for our free exercise of religion," said Steven R. Shapiro, the ACLU's National Legal Director. "In our view, this law was well within Congress' authority to enforce the Constitution. Unfortunately, the Court's decision today has once again lowered the threshold at which the government can take away our religious freedom."

The 1993 law was passed by Congress in direct response to the Supreme Court's 1990 ruling in Dept. of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith that religious groups cannot ordinarily exempt themselves from generally worded laws. The decision held that Native Americans who use hallucinogenic drugs in their religious ceremonies were not exempt from the narcotics law that applies to everyone else.

A large coalition of religious and civil liberties groups, including the ACLU, rallied Congress to pass a law prohibiting the government from enforcing a law that "substantially burdens" religious exercises without first demonstrating a "compelling" need to so and without using the "least restrictive means" possible. The law was enacted by an overwhelming majority of Congress.

The decision today stems from a challenge brought by a church in Boerne, Texas after the city denied a building permit to the church which wanted to expand its facilities and demolish a small,

historic building. The church invoked the law in its lawsuit, charging the city with violating its religious rights by interfering with its expansion plans.

The Court today also drew a sharp distinction between the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Voting Rights Act, saying that the voting rights law was an appropriate exercise of Congress' power to remedy widespread and persistent racial discrimination.

"That, at least, is a silver lining in this case," Shapiro said.

The case is City of Boerne v. Flores, No. 95-2074.

Founded in 1920, the ACLU is a nationwide, non-partisan organization dedicated to defending and preserving the Bill of Rights for all individuals through litigation, legislation and public education. With the exception of the Justice Department, the ACLU is involved in more cases before the Supreme Court than any other individual or organization.

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