Judge in Texas nullifies religious-freedom law

March 14, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A federal judge in Texas, ruling that Congress has no power to second-guess the Supreme Court's constitutional rulings, struck down yesterday a 1993 law designed to protect religion against government interference.

U.S. District Judge Lucius D. Bunton III of Midland said that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was intended to overrule a 1990 Supreme Court decision, but he said Congress cannot undo a constitutional ruling by passing a law.

This was the first time a federal court had ruled against a law that is highly popular with many religious sects and denominations. The decision created an important precedent against the law, but it conflicts with another judge's ruling last month upholding the law. It thus increased the likelihood that the constitutional question will have to go to the Supreme Court for a final answer.

The law at issue disagreed with a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling five years ago which cast aside years of precedents on constitutional protection for religious practices.

The court ruled that government may pass wide-ranging laws to regulate society, even if those laws have the effect of disrupting religious practices and even if the government cannot prove a necessity for such controls. In that case, the court refused to protect two members of the Native American Church who wanted to use a banned drug, peyote, in their religious rituals.

That decision sent waves of protest across the spectrum of religions in America and led to lobbying to persuade Congress to wipe out the court decision.

The 1993 law, the American Jewish Congress said yesterday, "has been characterized as the most important piece of legislation for religious liberty in many years." The law says that government cannot impose a "substantial burden" on anyone's religious exercise, even if the government action is general in scope, unless it is necessary to serve "a compelling government interest" that can be achieved by no other means.

The law has been used as a shield by those in conservative or fundamental faiths, by those who hold minority beliefs and by adherents to mainstream religious doctrine. Anti-abortion groups are using it to challenge a new federal law that protects abortion clinics against violence and threats of violence.

Judge Bunton's decision and the conflicting ruling in favor of the law by a federal judge in Hawaii upholding the law are binding only in each judge's jurisdiction. Judge Bunton said the issues at stake were so important that he would authorize an immediate appeal to a federal appeals court and urged that it be pursued on a fast track.

The American Jewish Congress, speaking for more than 60 religious groups that joined to defend the 1993 law, said the Texas judge's ruling would be "nothing more than a temporary obstacle" before the law ultimately is upheld on appeal.

Judge Bunton's ruling grew out of a government-church clash in the Texas town of Boerne, about 20 miles northwest of San Antonio. The Catholic archbishop of San Antonio, whose jurisdiction extends to the area including Boerne, wanted to expand the church in that community. The plan was blocked by a local historic-preservation law.

Archbishop P. F. Flores challenged the preservation law, saying it violated the new Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The city HTC of Boerne countered that the federal law was unconstitutional; the Justice Department defended it.

Judge Bunton agreed with the city. The First Amendment's religion clauses, the judge said, do not "empower Congress to regulate all federal law in order to achieve religious liberty." The First Amendment does not give Congress power; it limits congressional power, the judge said.

Rejecting the claim that Congress may overturn Supreme Court decisions based on the Constitution, Judge Bunton quoted an 1803 Supreme Court ruling that said, "It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is."

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