In a landmark ruling on religious freedom and government power, the Supreme Court on Wednesday made it easier for states and communities to apply general laws to churches and individuals claiming religious exemptions.
The court voted 6-3 to invalidate the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which gave religion more constitutional protection than the court itself did. Congress exceeded its power in passing the act, the justices said.
Currently, there are hundreds of lawsuits under the law that claim exceptions to state and local zoning, building, school, prison, employment, highway safety and anti-discrimination laws. The Supreme Court decision eliminates such defenses.
Leaders of religious organizations promptly condemned the ruling, while many state and local officials praised it.
“I think it’s a terrible decision,” said Brent Walker, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee, part of the liberal-conservative coalition that pushed the law through Congress in response to a 1990 high court ruling that left religion more vulnerable to the actions of government.
“The religious freedom of every American is endangered unless they happen to live in a state that rigorously protects it,” Walker said.
Going further, Rabbi David Saperstein, speaking for groups representing 1.5 million Reform Jews, called the decision “among the worst mistakes this court has ever made” - comparable, he said, to rulings that allowed slaves to be treated as property and that approved the World War II imprisonment of Americans of Japanese descent.
Not so, countered Marci Hamilton, who successfully argued against RFRA on behalf of the city of Boerne (pronounced Burney), Texas, which sought to apply a zoning ordinance to block expansion plans at the local St. Peter Catholic Church.
“I don’t think religious liberty is in a terrible state at all now,” she said. “RFRA produced discord. Now we’ll see more negotiation, a more level playing field. This case was not about religious liberty. It was about federal power, about the ability of Congress to revise the Constitution … In that sense, this (ruling) is a victory for liberty.”
The ruling was significant for its far-reaching clarifications of constitutional doctrine. It drew sharp limits on the power of Congress to invade the authority of the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution, and to pass laws that conflict with the authority of state and local governments to protect public health and welfare.
In fact, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court majority, RFRA was so sweeping that it intruded into “every level of government, displacing laws and prohibiting official actions of almost every description and regardless of subject matter…” “Any law is subject to challenge at any time by any individual who alleges a substantial burden on his or her free exercise of religion,” Kennedy declared.
It was the third time in the last three years that the Supreme Court had reined in Congress for venturing into the legal province of the states. Previously, the justices invalidated a federal gun-possession law and part of a federal statute regulating Indian gambling.
On Thursday, the justices are expected to decide whether the Brady Act, which requires police checks on people seeking to buy handguns, is an improper federal invasion of state and local powers.
As a practical matter, state laws often exempt religions. After the Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that Oregon could enforce its drug laws against Indian peyote rituals, the state exempted peyote, as many other states already did.
“The people who are going to be hurt by this ruling,” said Joseph Conn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “are the small religious minorities whose religious practices are considered outside the mainstream, and who have no power to lobby for an exemption.”
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with all or most of Kennedy’s majority opinion.
Stevens, the court’s most liberal member, said RFRA “provided the church with a legal weapon that no atheist or agnostic can obtain. This government preference for religion, as opposed to irreligion, is forbidden by the First Amendment.”
Justice Kennedt gave several reasons why RFRA was unconstitutional: Unlike the court-approved Voting Rights Act, it was not based on evidence of widespread discrimination. It placed too heavy a burden on the states. And it altered the meaning of religious freedom.
Congress “has been given the power to enforce (a constitutional right), not the power to determine what constitutes a constitutional violation,” Kennedy observed.
The death of RFRA restores the Smith decision as the law of the land. Religious advocates conceded they lacked enough votes on the high court to overturn Smith. Instead, they said, they would push for greater religious protections in state laws and constitutions.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor dissented Wednesday in the case of City of Boerne vs. Flores. She said her study of American constitutional history shows that the First Amendment guarantee of religious liberty is a right to practice religion “even when such conduct conflicts with a neutral, generally applicable law.” David Souter and Stephen Breyer also dissented.
Scalia, the author of the controversial Smith ruling, disputed O’Connor’s analysis. The real issue, he said, is whether the Supreme Court, or the people’s elected representatives determine if, for example, church construction should be exempt from zoning laws. The answer is, Scalia said: “It shall be the people.”
The justices, on the verge of their summer recess, also:
Upheld, 5-4, federal marketing programs requiring growers and handlers of various agricultural products to contribute to generic advertising campaigns, such as the ads featuring California Dancing Raisins. The majority said no free-speech rights were impaired in what it said were simply legitimate economic regulations.
Upset a sweeping $1.3 billion settlement of hundreds of thousands of asbestos claims. By a 6-2 vote (O’Connor abstaining), the justices said the settlement violated court rules aimed at assuring fair treatment for all claims.
xxxx COURT CASES REMAINING The Supreme Court has four major decisions to announce before the end of the 1996-97 term. The opinions could be issued as early as today or as late as Monday. They are: Assisted suicide. The court has been asked to determine if New York and Washington state laws banning physician-assisted suicide violate a constitutional right to choose to die. The justices first recognized that right in 1990, when it ruled that terminally ill people can refuse life-sustaining medical treatment. Internet indecency. The question at the center of this case is whether a federal law aimed at curbing smut on the Internet violates the right to free speech. In its first venture into cyberspace law, the court must decide whether the government can restrict online access to sexually explicit material to protect children. Brady law. At issue is a key provision of the federal gun law that requires local police to check backgrounds of prospective gun buyers. Two sheriffs from Montana and Arizona challenged the law, arguing that state law-enforcement officials cannot be compelled to help enforce a federal law. The Brady law requires a five-day waiting period before the sale of a handgun can be completed. During that time, police must try to determine whether the buyer is a felon, has a history of mental illness or drug use or is otherwise ineligible to own a gun. Line-item veto. Under the disputed law, the president could cut specific items without rejecting an entire spending bill. Earlier this year, a federal judge struck down the 1996 law, ruling it shifted too much power from Congress to the chief executive. The federal law took effect in January but had not yet been invoked when it was invalidated April 10.