The Supreme Court on Tuesday accepted what promises to be a momentous case on religious freedom, involving the constitutionality of a 1993 federal law that makes it far more difficult for government to infringe on religious practices, even when they violate local statutes.
The law is among the most sweeping protections of religious activity ever passed by Congress and has been put to a variety of uses since its 1993 enactment - by churches seeking exemptions from zoning requirements, by prisoners requesting that they be allowed to wear certain clothes, by landlords wanting to avoid fair-housing requirements if they deny apartments to unmarried couples.
State and local officials say the law has colored their dealings with religious believers of all faiths and incited turmoil in prisons.
Called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the law was enacted to counter a 1990 Supreme Court decision that allowed certain infringements on religious beliefs and practices. By agreeing to take the new case, the justices will not only re-enter the enduring battle between church and state, but could produce a landmark decision on Congress’ powers to reverse the effects of a high-court ruling.
While backers of the law say it protects America’s diverse religious interests, opponents claim it infringes on the authority of states and municipalities and forces them to be unnecessarily tolerant.
When Congress passed the law it was responding to a 1990 ruling that an individual’s religious beliefs do not excuse him from complying with otherwise valid laws, so long as those laws are being applied to all citizens in a neutral and general way.
That case involved two native Americans who were fired from their jobs at a private Oregon rehabilitation center after they ingested peyote, a cactus that contains the hallucinogen mescaline, during a religious ceremony. The state denied the men unemployment benefits based on the fact that they engaged in illegal drug use.
The two men, asserting that their religious rights had been violated, won in lower state courts, but the Supreme Court ruled against them.
In the weeks and months following the decision, a diverse coalition of religious and civil-liberties groups lobbied Congress to reverse the effects of the ruling.
In 1993, Congress overwhelmingly approved and President Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The current case arose when the city of Boerne, Texas, sought to stop a local Catholic church from enlarging its 1923 revival Mission-style building located in a historic district. The archbishop of San Antonio, P.F. Flores, successfully challenged the denial, relying on the 1993 law to make his case.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit said Congress correctly relied on Section 5 of the 14th Amendment, which says Congress “shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions” of the amendment protecting against state infringement on individual rights.
In the city’s appeal, supported by 16 states, the city stressed there are limits to Congress’ exercise of so-called Section 5 powers and that it is the court, not federal lawmakers, who are the arbiters of the breadth of constitutional protections.
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