RFRA in SCOTUS again

I just noticed that the Supreme Court has granted certiorari to hear a case in which the federal government is accused of violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 by seizing hallucinogenic controlled substances that are used by a religious group in religious tea ceremonies. The case is Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal, No. 04-1084 (below on appeal it was O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal v. Ashcroft, 389 F.3d 973 (10th Cir. 2004)). Peyote, anyone?

In O Centro Espirita, a panel of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals had upheld an injunction against the federal government, enjoining the government from relying on the federal Controlled Substances Act and the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances to prevent Uniao do Vegetal and its members from using the hallucinogen hoasca in its sacramental rituals. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal v. Ashcroft, 342 F.3d 1170 (10th Cir. 2003). The injunction relied on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act for its basis. This case proves to be interesting since the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was Congress’s attempt (held to be unconstitutional as applied to the states in City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507, 519 (1997)) to hit back after the Supreme Court held in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), that a generally applicable and neutral law can apply to infringe on the free exercise of religion regardless of whether the government could demonstrate a compelling state interest for such infringement of free exercise. Smith, 494 U.S. at 885. This holding basically overturned what had been the standard rule for some time regarding the free exercise of religion: that the government could only infringe on it through a neutral law if it could demonstrate a compelling state interest for doing so. Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963); Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972). Justice Scalia, in writing the majority opinion in Smith justified this holding with reference to the famous case upholding laws criminalizing the religious practice of polygamy, Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1879):

To make an individual’s obligation to obey such a [generally applicable law] contingent upon the law’s coincidence with his religious beliefs, except where the State’s interest is “compelling” — permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs, “to become a law unto himself,” Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S., at 167 — contradicts both constitutional tradition and common sense.

Smith, 494 U.S. at 885. The Tenth Circuit in O Centro Espirita affirmed the injunction en banc. Although City of Boerne held the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was Congress’s attempt to overturn the Supreme Court’s holding in Smith, was unconstitutional as applied to the states, it is still valid as applied to the federal government. Hence, this case will be interesting, depending on whether the Supreme Court upholds that posture–that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies to the federal government causing the exact opposite result from the Smith case, in which religious use of peyote was in issue.

6 Responses to RFRA in SCOTUS again

  1. Anonymous says:

    As I recall, there was specific federal legislation granting the Native American Church an exception to federal drug laws for the purpose of using peyote in their rituals — but in Smith  it was Oregon state drug law that was relied upon so the federal exemptions did not avail Mr. Smith. So is that federal exemption (I don’t have the references handy at the moment) still available? 

    Posted by Dave

  2. Anonymous says:

    I’m sure there are better references, but this recent DN article  covers things fairly well.

    Here’s the text of the exemption, from Title 21 of the US Code:

    Sec. 1307.31 Native American Church.
    The listing of peyote as a controlled substance in Schedule I does not apply to the nondrug use of peyote in bona fide religious ceremonies of the Native American Church, and members of the Native American Church so using peyote are exempt from registration. Any person who manufactures peyote for or distributes peyote to the Native American Church, however, is required to obtain registration annually and to comply with all other requirements of law.  

    Posted by Dave

  3. Anonymous says:

    John & Dave:

    This would be a great time for the Court to re-evaluate Smith. However, I fear that this case will meet the same fate as Smith…the law will be upheld as compelling, and once again, religious free exercise will be held up as the one constitutional right empty of all meaning; as opposed to the powerful, yet non-existent, right of privacy/abortion. 

    Posted by lyle stamps

  4. Anonymous says:

    Any idea what the quesiton presented idn the cert petition was? Is this a constitutional challenge to RFRA or are they arguing over the interpretation of the statute? 

    Posted by Nate Oman

  5. Anonymous says:

    Lawyer’s Weekly framed the question as whether the federal government violated the RFRA when it seized the hallucinogen from a group that used it sacramentally. I haven’t read the cert petition itself–probably should, but it sounds like a question of interpretation. 

    Posted by john fowles

  6. Anonymous says:

    the brute summary is two fold:

    1. re: whether enforcing the drug laws is a compelling state interest
    2. whether compliance with an international treaty is a compelling state interest 

    Posted by lyle stamps

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