Church-state wall remains intact after Texas ruling

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Religious Freedom and Restoration Act has emerged intact from a major challenge in Texas courts.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned a lower court's ruling that the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act was unconstitutional.

The measure, which was enacted by Congress in 1993 and commonly known as RFRA, requires the government to show a compelling interest and use the least restrictive means possible when limiting religious practices.

Jewish groups hailed the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

"This is a substantial ruling because there has been a hostile atmosphere against RFRA," said Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress' Commission on Social Action. "This changes the momentum and gives us a substantial place from which to argue" in favor of RFRA.

The measure, supported by virtually all religious organizations, including Jewish groups, in effect overturned a Supreme Court ruling that gave governments wide latitude in restricting religious practices.

In 1995, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas broke ranks with at least 16 other courts, declaring the act unconstitutional and saying that Congress had exceeded its authority in passing the measure.

Jewish groups hailed the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

Stern had filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of a coalition of religious groups, which had come together to support the measure.

At issue in the Texas case, P.F. Flores, archbishop of San Antonio, and USA vs. city of Boerne, Texas, was Boerne's argument that the Saint Peter Catholic Church could not build an addition because the church fell within the bounds of a new historic preservation law.

The church argued that the law was unconstitutional and violated its rights under RFRA.

A long-shot appeal to the Supreme Court is expected. The high court turns away more than a thousand cases a year and this year will hear less than 100 appeals.

But according to Stern, the issue of RFRA's constitutionality is eventually destined for the Supreme Court.