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High Court To Hear Arguments on Religious-Freedom Act

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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to decide the constitutionality of a federal law that makes it far more difficult for the government to infringe on religious practices.

The case involving the Religious Freedom Restoration Act presents not only an important church-state issue, but also a significant question about the separation of powers between Congress and the Supreme Court.

The law has been strongly supported by a broad coalition of religious, education, and civil liberties groups, including those representing Christian schools and home-schooling parents. The groups contend that Congress, through the law, restored a level of constitutional protection for religion that the Supreme Court took away in a 1990 decision known as Employment Division v. Smith.

In that case from Oregon, the high court ruled 5-4 that there is no religious exemption to laws that happen to burden religious groups or practices. The ruling allowed the state of Oregon to enforce its drug laws against the members of a Native American church that used the drug peyote in religious ceremonies.

Congress sought to undo the effect of that ruling by passing a measure in 1993 that restored the highest level of constitutional scrutiny for federal, state, or local laws that infringe upon religious exercise. The religious-freedom act says governments may not "substantially burden" religious activity without showing a "compelling" governmental interest.

President Clinton signed the bill into law and has cited it as among his most important legislative accomplishments. However, the measure has not been as popular among state and local officials. Prison officials, for example, say inmates have invoked the law in defense of questionable practices that the inmates maintain are required by their religious beliefs.

A coalition of religious and other groups argues in a friend-of-the-court brief that without the 1993 law, and the Supreme Court's clear affirmation of its constitutionality, many government bodies will continue to interfere with religious practices.

"Our collective experience [is] that our religious beliefs and practices are increasingly vulnerable to the insensitivity of governmental bodies," the brief by the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion says.

The coalition includes the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Association of Christian Schools, the Home School Legal Defense Association, and the Traditional Values Coalition.

Few cases arising under the religious-freedom law have involved education. But religious groups fear that without the law, governments could, for example, subject home-schooling parents to more extensive supervision or could force religious schools to comply with all general labor laws.

Church Expansion

The case accepted for review by the court involves a dispute between a Texas city and a Roman Catholic church over the church's attempt to expand to meet the needs of a growing congregation. The city of Bourne, Texas, near San Antonio, denied a building permit for St. Peter Catholic Church to expand because it was located in a historic district.

The Catholic archbishop of San Antonio sued the city, invoking the religious-freedom law. But the city argued the law was unconstitutional because Congress exceeded its authority by using legislation, in effect, to overrule a Supreme Court decision.

A federal district court sided with the city and held the law unconstitutional. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit upheld the measure.

The appeals court ruled that a section of the 14th Amendment gives Congress the authority to enact laws necessary to ensure constitutional rights and that the law does not usurp the judicial branch's power to interpret the U.S. Constitution.

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