Quite A Month For the Religious Freedom Restoration Act
by Michael Fox
The headliner of course was last week's unanimous decision by the Supreme Court upholding the right of a small religious sect to use a hallucinogenic tea, hoasca, in its worship service. Gonzalez v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal (2/21/06) [pdf].
But a week earlier, the same statute was being reviewed by the 2nd Circuit in a challenge by a 70 year old minister sidelined by the Methodist Church mandatory retirement age. Although not reaching the merits, the court did find the RFRA as applied to federal actions was constitutional. Here the federal action was the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Court found the RFRA applicable even in a suit between two private parties. The Court didn't apply it to the merits of the case, remanding to the district court for its views on the merits. Hankins v. Lyght (2nd Cir. 2/16/06) [pdf].
But it was not a unanimous opinion, as dissenting Judge Sotomayor accuses the majority of breaching a "cardinal principle of judicial restraint" by reaching the issue of the constitutionality of the RFRA when it was not necessary. Even if it were necessary to decide this issue, Judge Sotomayor would not find that it applied to suits between private parties.
If the majority opinion is right, look for creative uses leading to significantly more litigation over religion's role in the workplace.