Religious liberty act overturned Congress exceeded powers, judge rules in Cumberland case

Church plans to appeal

City wants to make archdiocese preserve historic monastery

June 12, 1996|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

Ruling that Congress should not interfere with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, a federal judge in Maryland yesterday struck down a law designed to protect religious groups after reviewing a case involving the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin ruled in a dispute over the future of Cumberland's historic monastery that Congress could not overturn a Supreme Court decision by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The judge's ruling places the archdiocese in the middle of a national debate over the separation of church and state.

Smalkin is only the second federal judge in the country to strike down the act, approved by Congress in 1993. The act has been upheld by other federal judges, making it all but certain that its constitutionality will eventually be decided by the Supreme Court.

At stake is a law that is enormously popular among religious denominations and sects, and whether those groups can be shielded from the wishes of outside government forces.

"This is a very important case," said Bill Blaul, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, which is considering an appeal of the federal court ruling. "The right of our parishioners to freely worship is being restricted by a local government."

The case pending in Baltimore traces back to 1848, when St. John Neumann, who became the first American male saint, decided to build a church a few blocks from the banks of the C&O Canal in Cumberland.

Two years later, construction of a six-story stone and brick monastery began. The Redemptorists used the medieval-looking monastery until 1866. They were succeeded by two other orders, the Carmelites and the Capuchin Friars.

In 1919, church leaders began to build a two-story passageway connecting the monastery to the church. The passageway was supposed to double as a recreation hall for priests. Instead, it ended up becoming a huge storage room, earning it the nickname "White Elephant."

These days, the archdiocese wants to raze the monastery and the White Elephant. It would cost as much as $2 million to renovate the crumbling buildings, church leaders say. Instead, the parish of 1,226 families at St. Peter and Paul's Roman Catholic Church wants to build a multipurpose center, a project that would cost far less.

"We don't want to put any money into that monastery," the archdiocese spokesman said yesterday. "It's not a tourist attraction. It's not a museum."

City vs. church

Cumberland city managers see it differently.

The city's Historic Preservation Commission has designated the monastery and the White Elephant as part of its district. Last year, the commission denied the archdiocese's request to demolish the buildings. Claiming the denial was unconstitutional, the archdiocese sued the city in federal court.

Among the church's claims: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act shielded the archdiocese from Cumberland's historic preservation designation.

Congress passed the act in 1993 in response to a national outcry from religious groups. Three years earlier, the Supreme Court refused to protect two members of the Native American Church who wanted to use peyote as part of their religious rituals.

The court ruled that governments could pass sweeping legislation to regulate society -- even if those laws disrupted religious practices. Religious groups were furious, warning that the ruling could curb the freedom to practice religion unfettered by government influence.

'Compelling interest'

To restore those rights, Congress approved the act, preventing any federal, state or local government from interfering with a person's exercise of religious freedom unless the government could show a "compelling interest."

Since then, the act has been used as a shield by religious groups in a variety of cases. They have called it one of the most important pieces of legislation for religious freedom since the enactment of the First Amendment.

But not everyone on the federal bench agrees that it is constitutional.

Last year, a federal judge in Texas struck down the act, ruling that Congress overstepped its bounds. That decision was overturned on appeal. Other federal judges have upheld the act, and at least four cases are headed to the Supreme Court, legal experts say.

The Maryland case could be a fifth, said Marc D. Stern, legal director of the American Jewish Congress, which represents dozens of religious groups fighting to preserve the act.

"This certainly adds more fuel to the fire," Stern said yesterday.

Cumberland City Solicitor H. Jack Price said, "We're very pleased."

Smalkin's ruling

In the Cumberland case, Judge Smalkin ruled that Congress went too far by creating the act. He wrote that the act "deprives" courts of the power to review key constitutional questions and that Congress lacked the authority to enact the legislation in the first place.

"Congress has gone beyond the business of legislation and entered the field of constitutional interpretation," Smalkin wrote in his 31-page opinion.

Although he granted Cumberland's request to dismiss the archdiocese's claim that it is protected by the congressional act, Smalkin denied the city's request to dismiss nine other constitutional questions. Acknowledging the importance of his decision, Smalkin authorized an immediate appeal of his ruling to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

"We plan to aggressively pursue this case," said Blaul, the archdiocese spokesman.

Pub Date: 6/12/96

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