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Supreme Court to Review Law on Religious Freedom


A law expanding religious freedom that stands as one of the Jewish community’s crowning legislative achievements will undergo constitutional scrutiny during the current Supreme Court term.

The high court agreed this week to review a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that upheld as constitutional the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law enacted in 1993 that makes it harder for government to infringe upon the free exercise of religion.

Jewish groups across the gamut, together with a broad coalition of religious and civil rights organizations, were instrumental in pushing the legislation through Congress.

Most — if not all — Jewish groups now intend to either sign onto or file their own friend-of-the-court briefs with the Supreme Court in defense of the statute.

Under the law, local, state and federal government agencies must show a “compelling” interest before interfering with the practice of religion, whether inadvertently or intentionally.

In the case, Boerne vs. Flores, the justices will decide whether Congress exceeded its authority in adopting the law, known as RFRA, by usurping power from state and local governments and from the Supreme Court itself.

The law has also been challenged on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment by giving religion exclusive privileges over other expressions of conscience.

More than 20 challenges to RFRA are now floating around in the lower courts. The case taken by the Supreme Court deals with a landmark-preservation dispute between Boerne, Texas, and a Roman Catholic church.

The case arose after city officials denied an application from the church to expand into the city’s historic district. The church contended that without enlarging its building, it would be unable to accommodate its members and fulfill its mission. The archbishop sued, charging that the city’s action violated RFRA.

The city responded by arguing that the federal law was unconstitutional. A U.S. District Court judge agreed, but the ruling was reversed by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Jewish legal experts, who gave RFRA their own constitutional stamp of approval in 1993, remain optimistic that the court will uphold the law.

“Based on prior law, we have an excellent chance of winning,” said Marc Stern, co-director of the legal department of the American Jewish Congress. “Whether the court is planning a major revision of the law is harder to answer.”

Another advocate of RFRA, David Zweibel, general counsel and director of government affairs for Agudath Israel of America, said he welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision to review the case.

However the court rules, he said, a decision will at the very least eliminate the ambiguity that has arisen from different judicial interpretations of the law.

The justices will hear arguments in the case early next year. A decision is due by the end of the court term in June.

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