WASHINGTON (July 14, 1997) -- The General Counsel of the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) told the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the House Judiciary Committee that the USCC still advocates some legislative remedy to protect the religious freedom of all Americans.
Mark E. Chopko testified (July 14) on the views of the USCC on the recent Supreme Court decision invalidating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993.
"RFRA followed the best of our traditions," Mr. Chopko told the committee. "It tipped the scales of justice slightly back in the direction of religion. Given our history and public traditions, the near united support among the American people and the Congress, RFRA seemed to strike a responsive chord in the soul of our country. In our litigious society, dealing with bureaucracies that expect conformity and lack mechanisms to make exceptions, RFRA served as an important tool in negotiation, bargaining, and reaching compromise in more instances than we can count," Mr. Chopko stated.
In 1990, in Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court reduced the level of protection for Free Exercise rights and allowed government considerably more power to regulate and restrict religiously motivated practices. At that time the Court urged citizens to take their case for protection of religious freedom to Congress. At the urging of numerous religious groups, including USCC, Congress enacted the RFRA to provide protection for all religious groups against unwarranted state interference.
"We do not believe that anti-religious discrimination is rampant," Mr. Chopko stated. "Intentional discrimination is not the rule and discrimination is not tolerated in this society. But anti-religious feelings, especially about religious minorities--and we are all a minority somewhere in this country--is still felt even if it is not expressed."
"Moreover," he continued, "it is also widely recognized that burdens can be created for religious practitioners and on religious practices in myriad unintended ways."
In this context, Mr. Chopko cited City of Boerne v. Flores, the case which became the vehicle for the Court to invalidate RFRA. The case arose when St. Peter's Catholic Church in the City of Boerne, Texas, wanted to expand its sanctuary to serve the needs of a growing number of worshipers. Because the facade of the Church extended into an historic district, the Church was willing to make an accomodation and preserve the facade, but the city still prevented the church from undertaking its renovation plans. Most Reverend Patrick F. Flores is the Archbishop of San Antonio, the archdiocese in which the church is located.
"The inability for the Catholics of St. Peter's to worship together in community in the consecrated space dedicated for that purpose was a direct affront and a substantial burden to that community," Mr. Chopko said. "The inability of the City leadership to make an accomodation in that instance, therefore, penalized the rights of the worshiping community and burdened their religious practices. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act held out a strong, but not exclusive, avenue for relief."
"There are thousands of St. Peter's churches across the country," the USCC official continued. "Churches, mosques, synagogues, and individual practitioners routinely conflict with the demands of the bureaucratic, highly regulated society. We do not always understand the impact of even asking a witness to swear an oath, as some faith communities will not allow their members to do so. We do not always understand why asking a Sikh to remove his head covering in a court to show reverence for the judge ascending the bench is an affront to his religious belief. We do not always understand how autopsy or uniform donation of organ rules can adversely impact the rights of religious believers who, when their bodies are violated, can be denied eternal life. When we lose the right to be different, we lose the right to be free."
"When we lose the sense that we need to get along, to preserve the civic peace which is a value at the core of our constitutional democracy, we threaten the very heart of what it means to be an American," Mr. Chopko told the committee. "Our tradition is that we find ways to get along. Our tradition is that religion has always been accorded different and beneficial treatment."