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    Supreme Court will hear challenge to Religious Freedom Restoration Act

     

    The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Oct. 15 to hear a constitutional challenge to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a 1993 federal law that protects religious freedom in the face of government regulation.

    The Court will review a U.S. appeals court ruling that upheld RFRA as constitutional, and overturned a federal judge’s decision which struck down the law. Under RFRA, government agencies must demonstrate a compelling interest before restricting a religious practice. “Compelling interest” is a very difficult legal test to meet. RFRA was passed to reverse a 1990 Supreme Court decision which held that the government did not need to show a compelling interest if the regulation in question was broadly worded and generally applicable to activities beyond religion.

    The case before the High Court is a zoning dispute, involving the city of Bourne, Texas. Citing a landmark preservation ordinance, the city denied an application from a Roman Catholic archbishop who wanted to expand St. Peter’s Catholic Church, located in the city’s historic district. The 70-year-old church, which has grown to 2,000 parishioners, said it would be unable to fulfill its mission without expanding.

    The archbishop sued, saying that the city’s refusal to grant a building permit violated RFRA. The city argued that RFRA was unconstitutional because Congress had no power to pass such a law. The city called RFRA “a bold and unprecedented example of federal social policy engineering.”

    Federal judge Lucius Bunton III sided with the city, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit court overturned that decision, arguing extensively that Congress was well within its rights to pass RFRA.

    The U.S. Justice Department defended RFRA, and urged the Supreme Court to reject Bourne’s appeal, saying, “Every appellate court that has considered the issue has upheld the constitutionality of RFRA.” But attorneys for the archbishop argued for Supreme Court review, saying, “The constitutional question here has become serious, even though we believe the city’s arguments are quite implausible, because these arguments are so persistently and vociferously asserted [in a variety of cases] that they significantly hamper enforcement of the act.”

    Jordan Lorence, a constitutional attorney and general counsel for the Northstar Legal Center, said the Bourne case is “very important” because it represents “a fundamental challenge to RFRA.” At least two other cases before the Court could hinge on the Bourne case. One, being brought by Lorence, involves a Christian landlord in California who refused to rent to an unmarried couple. The other is a Minnesota case involving a bankruptcy trustee’s efforts to recover tithes given to a church by a couple who later went bankrupt. Since both involve RFRA, both are likely to be put on hold until the Bourne decision is filed, said Lorence.

    “The Supreme Court will basically say if RFRA is constitutional or unconstitutional, and that will have massive implications for everybody trying to seek protections for religious liberty,” said Lorence. “If they strike down RFRA, we go back to a situation where nobody’s religious liberties get protected except in very isolated cases.”

    RFRA has never been tested by the Supreme Court, and the fact that the High Court tends to reverse about two-thirds of the cases it accepts doesn’t bode well for RFRA, says Lorence. However, of the RFRA-related cases before the Court, the Bourne case is the best one for review, he said. “I think this is the best case, because in the other cases arguably there are victims.’ Here there’s just the abstract desire of the community to preserve historic buildings — and that’s not viewed by many people as the highest of priorities. Also the church is tremendously burdened by the law. There are strong facts and a good attorney representing the church.”

    RFRA has been drawing fire from prison officials, who say that inmates are using the law to challenge aspects of prison life ranging from uniforms to diet. In one case, a Texas inmate claimed that his religion required that he be served chateaubriand (an expensive cut of beef) at least once a week.

    Arguments will be heard early next year, and a decision is expected by the end of June.

    — E.P. News

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