In a decision that could threaten the future of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a Texas judge has declared the legislation unconstitutional.
Arguing that Congress did not have the authority to enact the legislation known as RFRA, U.s. District Court Judge Lucius D. Bunton has taken the first step in a case involving a church in San Antonio.
Last week’s ruling is the first to label the act unconstitutional.
Enacted by Congress in 1993, RFRA requires local, state and federal governments to show a compelling interest before interfering with the practice of religion, whether inadvertently or intentionally.
Supported by a wide coalition of religious organizations, including Jewish groups, the legislation was passed to counter a 1990 Supreme Court decision that said as long as government action did not target religion specifically, it did not have to show a compelling interest before intervening in religious matters.
Bunton argued that the law violates the role of Congress and the courts as defined by the Constitution.
The court is “convinced of Congress’ violation of the doctrine of Separation of Powers by intruding on the power and duty of the judiciary” through RFRA, Bunton said in his six-page decision issued Monday.
In the Texas case, Flores vs. City of Boerne, San Antonio’s Archbishop P.F. Flores wanted to expand a church in Boerne’s historic district. A landmark preservation ordinance, which required city approval for changes in that area, blocked the effort.
The archbishop challenged the law based on RFRA. The city responded by challenging the act’s constitutionality.
Although the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Texas ruled on one aspect of the case, other issues are still pending before it will be closed, said Marc Stern, co-director of the legal department of the American Jewish Congress.
The plaintiff has appealed the judge’s decision, and RFRA proponents hope it will be overturned in federal appeals court.
President Clinton, who supports RFRA, announced that the administration will join in the appeal in the Texas case, Michael McCurry, White House spokesman, said Wednesday.
The case bears watching because it could lead to the eradication of RFRA, Stren said.
“There won’t be a RFRA if this case is upheld,” he said. “It might well be the case that determines RFRA’s constitutionality.”
Stern called Bunton’s decision “scary,” but cautioned that it was too early to “sound the alarm bells” because about 11 other RFRA cases are pending throughout the country.
Only one other decision has been handed down so far and that one ruled in favor of RFRA, he said. In that case, the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii said that Congress does have the power to enact RFRA.