Nov 01, 2005

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has urged the U.S. Supreme Court to require government officials to show specific evidence of serious harm to society before interfering with religious freedom.

Today the high court will hear arguments in a case involving application of the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which bars the government from “substantially” burdening the free exercise of religion, unless it can prove a “compelling” interest in doing so.

Americans United has joined a diverse group of religious and public policy groups in a friend-of-the-court brief calling on the Supreme Court to vigorously enforce RFRA.

“Religious liberty is a cornerstone of the American way of life,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Government officials should not be able to interfere with the worship practices of religious groups without strong and convincing evidence that the public will be harmed.”

In 2002, a U.S. district court ruled that RFRA protects a church that uses a mildly hallucinogenic tea in its ceremonies. The central ingredient of the tea is prohibited by the federal Controlled Substances Act. But the federal judge held that the government had failed to prove that use of hoasca tea is dangerous and that there is a “compelling interest” in barring its use.

The lawsuit was prompted when New Mexico and federal law enforcement officials seized hoasca tea from the home of Jeffrey Bronfman, a leader of the O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal, which is a religion based on Christianity and South American indigenous beliefs.

In 2003 and 2004, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower federal court’s ruling. The Bush administration has asked the Supreme Court to reverse the decision.

Besides Americans United other groups joining the brief in Gozales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal include the Baptist Joint Committee; the American Civil Liberties Union; the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA); the Union for Reform Judaism; the Sikh Council; the First Church of Christ, Scientist; the National Association of Evangelicals; the Christian Legal Society and Liberty Counsel.

The brief argues that in passing RFRA, “Congress determined that the ‘inalienable’ right of free exercise of religion should include the right to exercise one’s faith even in the face of generally applicable laws, and that this right, although not absolute, should be given great respect by the federal government.”

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.