Nov. 2, 2005 – In the first drug-related case of the John Roberts era, the US Supreme Court heard opening arguments yesterday in a conflict involving small-group and individual religious rights. The case, Gonzales v. O Centro Espirito Uniao Do Vegetal, is a rehearing of a long-running court battle between the US Department of Justice and members of a small US church.
Last year, the Supreme Court declined to knock down a lower federal courtâ€™s finding that members of the Native American church, which claims it originated in Brazil, could use a tea containing the illegal hallucinogen DMT as part of its sacrament. The case came about after the Justice Department lost several court rounds over interpretation of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which bars the government from restricting an individualâ€™s religious expression without a compelling reason.
Yesterday, the Justices seemed inclined to uphold their prior decision, according to statements and questions put to the government attorney, Edwin S. Kneedler.
The case has the Bush administration seeking to tamp down religious groups and the ACLU working hand-in-hand with evangelical Christians to keep the RFRA in place and extend its dominion to the states. The ACLU joined with sixteen other organizations, including religious and civil-liberties advocates, in filing briefs supporting the RFRA.
But some see the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as discriminatory. For instance, the group Religious Tolerance says the act is "clearly unconstitutional." In a statement, the group noted that at both the state and federal levels, such laws "run into constitutional problems because they attempt to grant special religious freedoms to individuals and organizations that are not available to agnostics, atheists, and other secularists and their groups."
Yesterday, ACLU Legal Director Steven R. Shapiro cast the issue another way, stating: "The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was adopted by Congress to ensure that the government does not interfere with religious practices absent a compelling justification. The governmentâ€™s position in this case would effectively strip religion of the legal protection that Congress sought to provide."