Congress, Courts and Churches
Thursday, June 26, 1997; Page A18
In one of the most far-reaching decisions of this term, the Supreme Court yesterday struck down as an unconstitutional exercise of congressional power the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), a law that had broad public support in all the nation's religious communities. The act was itself a response to a 1990 court ruling involving the religious use of peyote. That decision bolstered the power of states to enforce laws applying to everyone zoning, drug control, taxes, prison regulations and the like that might incidentally burden religious conduct. To have ruled otherwise, the court said at that time, "would have produced an anomaly in the law, a constitutional right to ignore neutral laws of general applicability." Congress responded with RFRA, which, in effect, changes the meaning of the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment and restricts the power of the states.
The case the court decided this week started out as a zoning matter in which the Catholic archbishop of San Antonio, citing RFRA, challenged the right of the city of Boerne, Tex., to deny a building permit for a church in an area designated for historic preservation. But it became a much broader controversy almost immediately. The District Court judge went beyond the facts at issue and declared the entire RFRA unconstitutional. The Supreme Court now agrees.
In recent years, Congress has tended to respond to every perceived problem with legislation. Without much thought about the relationship between federal and state responsibilities, legislators here want to regulate street crime, domestic violence and all kinds of activities that traditionally and constitutionally have been left to the states. The Supreme Court has begun to crack down on this expansionism and set boundaries. In this case, however, the problem is not between the federal government and the states but between two of the three branches of the federal government. Here the court is saying that the power to interpret the Constitution, to say what the Free Exercise Clause allows and what it prohibits, belongs to the courts, not the legislature. Congress cannot therefore overturn a Supreme Court ruling on a constitutional matter simply by passing a law.
This opinion will be unpopular. Religious groups want to be free of some of the often burdensome laws and regulations states impose on everyone, and they believe the Constitution gives them that right. These groups are well organized and will be heard. But the court's view is not unreasonable. The Constitution divides the government's power, and the courts have the responsibility to keep those lines clear. One effect of the broad ruling is the invalidation of RFRA. But in light of Justice Stevens's concurring reminder that the law granted preferences to religious groups that were unavailable to nonbelievers, the result is not unfair.
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