Religious Freedom Restoration Act Struck Down by Supreme Court
In one of its most significant decisions concerning religion, the United States Supreme Court ruled on June 25 that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is unconstitutional.
The RFRA was passed by Congress in 1993 after the Supreme Court ruled in a 1990 case, Employment Division v. Smith, that neutral, broadly applied laws which happen to burden religious practice are constitutional. The RFRA allowed government to pass such laws only when there was a compelling governmental interest.
The act was criticized by those who believed that it encouraged frivolous claims against the government. The RFRA has caused a "litigation nightmare when it comes to prisons," said Jeffrey Sutton, state solicitor of Ohio, according to the Baptist Press. "Since RFRA was enacted, we've got roughly 60 or 70 cases pending in Ohio. Not one of them has been resolved yet."
In 1993, the city of Boerne, Texas, entered into a dispute with St. Peter Catholic Church. The church wished to expand its building; the city refused to allow a permit for the expansion because the building was located in a historic district and was a historic landmark. The church pursued the case, invoking the RFRA.
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court struck down the RFRA on constitutional grounds, arguing that Congress did not have the power to pass such an act. The majority opinion said that such a sweeping act violated the separation of powers in the U.S. government.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who dissented from the ruling, said that the Smith decision ought to be reconsidered. "Our nation's founders conceived of a republic receptive to voluntary religious expression, not a secular society in which religious expression is tolerated only when it does not conflict with a generally applicable law," she said.
Many representatives of religious bodies and civil liberty organizations expressed their strong disappointment with the ruling.
"The First Amendment has just been gutted by the Supreme Court," said James Dunn, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, according to the Associated Baptist Press News. "The court's concern for proper process may well deny millions of Americans the religious liberty which has been our nation's heritage."
"We are at the mercy of state and local officials now," commented Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, according to the New York newspaper Forward.
The repeal of the RFRA has already affected several other cases being considered by the Supreme Court. On June 27, for example, the Supreme Court annulled an appeals-court ruling that the RFRA protected the rights of inmates to wear religious jewelry that is too small or light to be used as a weapon.
In another case watched by religious groups, but unrelated to the RFRA, the Supreme Court ruled on June 23 that public school teachers may come onto religious school grounds to teach secular subjects to needy children. The decision reverses a 1985 Supreme Court ruling which forbade such action. "We no longer presume that public employees will inculcate religion simply because they happen to be in a sectarian environment," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said, according to The New York Times.
©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson