Supreme Court to Review Law on Religious Freedom

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WASHINGTON, D.C.: In an important constitutional battle between church and state, the Supreme Court agreed Monday to review a 1993 federal law aimed at protecting religious freedom from government interference. The court will use a zoning dispute between a Catholic church and the town of Boerne, Texas, to decide whether Congress exceeded its authority in passing the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Congress passed the law in response to a Supreme Court ruling in a 1990 Oregon case involving Native American rituals that taking the hallucinogenic drug peyote as a religious practice was not a constitutional right. Seeking a way around that ruling, Congress passed legislation requiring that any law imposing a "substantial burden" on someone's religious beliefs serve a "compelling government interest in the least intrusive way." St. Peters Catholic church in Boerne invoked the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when a local landmark-preservation commission blocked the church from building an addition to its 70-year old building. The church contends that the law violates the 10th Amendment rights of states and local governments by forcing federal courts to impose a more exacting standard than the Supreme Court said was necessary in its 1990 ruling. Sixteen states joined Boerne's appeal in an amicus brief saying the law has allowed "gangs and like-minded groups to shroud illicit activity under the cover of religious belief." Terence Nelan