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High court’s ruling encourages religious liberty advocates

WASHINGTON (BP)–Religious freedom advocates have hailed a new U.S. Supreme Court decision as a step in the right direction for free-exercise rights.

The high court ruled unanimously Feb. 21 that the U.S. government did not show it had a valid reason for barring a small religious sect from the sacramental use of a tea that contains a substance prohibited by a federal drug law. In so doing, the justices reaffirmed that a 1993 law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), applies to the federal government, which still must show it has a “compelling interest” before restricting the free exercise of religion.

Alan Sears, president of the Alliance Defense Fund, said the decision, combined with previous opinions, could demonstrate the high court is headed in the right direction on other religious freedom cases, such as those involving the freedom of conscience of physicians, pharmacists and other medical professionals.

The decision “has tremendous potential from a legal standpoint in guaranteeing the rights of Americans to their first liberty, which is religious freedom,” Sears said in a written statement. “We recognize the value in having our nation’s highest court apply the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in a strong but prudent manner to restrain the federal government’s ability to infringe on religious liberties.”

Anthony Picarello, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a written release the ruling “makes clear that RFRA still applies to the federal government -– with force. And paired with last May’s decision upholding [the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act] -– which was also unanimous -– the court has sent a clear signal that laws specially accommodating religious exercise are here to stay.”

Like RFRA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) says the government cannot substantially burden free exercise of religion unless it can demonstrate it has a “compelling interest” and is using the “least restrictive means” to further that interest. In May, the justices upheld RLUIPA in a case involving the religious expression of prisoners.

The Supreme Court’s latest affirmation of free-exercise rights involved an American branch of what it described as a Brazilian “Christian Spiritist sect.” The group, which numbers about 130 in the United States, uses hoasca, a tea made from two plants found in the Amazon River area, in communion. One of the plants includes a hallucinogen drug banned by the federal government’s Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

When the federal government seized a shipment of the tea and signaled it would prosecute the sect, the religious group sued, claiming the action violated RFRA. A federal judge granted the sect’s request for an injunction blocking enforcement of CSA by the government, and a federal appeals court upheld the ruling.

The high court said the government failed to conduct the “more focused inquiry required by RFRA and the compelling interest test.” The government even argued there is no exception to the CSA, though it has granted an exemption for 35 years to the Native American Church for peyote use, the court said.

“The government’s argument echoes the classic rejoinder of bureaucrats throughout history: If I make an exception for you, I’ll have to make one for everybody, so no exceptions,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. “But RFRA operates by mandating consideration, under the compelling interest test, of exceptions to ‘rule[s] of general applicability.’”

The high court’s action affirmed the injunction and returned the case to federal court for further proceedings. The case is Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal.

New Associate Justice Samuel Alito did not participate in the opinion, since he was not on the court when it heard oral arguments in November. At that time, Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who had announced her plans to retire, was still on the court. Alito replaced her when the Senate confirmed him in January.

RFRA was Congress’ attempt to restore the high standard the government had to meet before it restricted the free exercise of religion. The law was a response to a 1990 Supreme Court ruling that religious liberty advocates said diminished rights protected by the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause. The justices struck down RFRA in 1997 in its application to the states.

After the high court severely limited RFRA’s application, Congress passed RLUIPA in 2000, seeking to apply the same principles in the earlier law to inmates and land use, two areas in which government frequently inhibits religious free exercise

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