I've written before about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a strange-bedfellows law sponsored by Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy. My earlier post not only explains RFRA's background, but also reveals that there's a federal law against casting spells, so it might be worth a (re-)read. But in short, RFRA was Congress's response to a Supreme Court case about the free exercise of religion, and it requires the federal government to prove that applying federal statutes in a way that impinges on an individual's religious practices is absolutely necessary to protect a compelling governmental interest.
The Solicitor General is now asking the Supreme Court to overturn a decision by the 10th Circuit that applied RFRA to "a small Christian group's drinking of ceremonial tea." If you know RFRA's history, you'll probably have guessed how that practice got them in trouble. The case that triggered RFRA involved the application of the drug laws to a Native American group that used peyote during religious rites. Lo and behold, we have another spiritual use of a controlled substance; the "ceremonial tea" comes from Brazil and contains dimethyltryptamine, a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act.
Given that RFRA was inspired by a drug-for-religion case and specifically permits the Native American group to continue using peyote, it would seem on the surface that the 10th Circuit must have been right to say that RFRA prohibits the government from prosecuting the church members for using their special tea. Maybe there's more to the case than meets the eye; the SG's office isn't known for filing frivolous cert. petitions.
But I do wonder why an administration that's so big on promoting religion and protecting faith-based organizations is taking the time to push this case. I'm not being facetious; to judge from their reaction to the peyote case, religious conservatives don't exclude drug users from their generally strong belief that the government shouldn't punish religious practices. I'd think that the same people on the right who supported RFRA--and there were a lot of them who got Congress to act posthaste after the Supreme Court's decision--would prefer that the administration let this case drop. I'd also think Bush would be happy to have a bone to throw to the fundies that has little or no political cost; after all, who else is paying attention to this case?
So I'm scratching my head.
Meanwhile, anyone who's read my prior post, criticizing the 6th Circuit for striking down a closely related post-RFRA statute, will know that I'm not on the government's side this time around.
I think the government should be neutral, which means both refraining from endorsement of religion and making sure not to interfere when private individuals practice their religion. So the school P.A. shouldn't broadcast a prayer before the homecoming game; but teachers also shouldn't harrass students who get together between classes to pray. Here you have Congress saying the government ought to take some extra care not to trample on religious practices when it's not really necessary, and a court says that's a no-no.Bravo to Congress for protecting the free expression of religion, and shame on the administration for trying to undermine Congress's work.