Monday, September 26, 2005

What Is The Issue In O Centro?

On November 1, the case of Gonzales v. O Centro Espirito will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. There seems to be a basic disagreement among interested parties on what issue the Supreme Court will be deciding in the case. When the Court granted cert., it defined the issue as follows: "Whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ... requires the government to permit the importation, distribution, possession, and use of a Schedule I hallucinogenic controlled substance, where Congress has found that the substance has a high potential for abuse, it is unsafe for use even under medical supervision, and its importation and distribution would violate an international treaty."

The government's brief defines the issue in this way. (See prior posting.) On the other hand, the respondent's brief (UDV Church) takes a narrower position-- the issue is the standard for issuing a preliminary injunction under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That does seem to be what the 10th Circuit's en banc opinion was about.

More interesting, perhaps, is skirmishing of a different sort that is going on in amicus briefs. Marci A. Hamilton, Professor at Cardozo Law School and church-state expert filed a brief on behalf of two "Tort Claimants Committees", groups of individuals suing the Catholic Church-- in particular, the Archdiocese of Portland and the Diocese of Spokane. Each religious entity has filed for bankruptcy. The claimants are seeking damages for prior sexual abuse, and in each case, the Diocese or Archdiocese is asserting that RFRA shields it from liability in some way. The Tort Claimants Brief argues that the Court should use this case to focus on the constitutionality of RFRA as applied to the federal government, and should hold that the law is unconstitutional. (The brief is available on Westlaw at 2005 WL 1630009). [Update- the brief is also available here.]

The brief argues that RFRA violates the separation of powers, is beyond Congress enumerated powers, and violates the Establishment Clause. While this argument might seem so far removed from the Court's original grant of certiorari that it could be ignored, a large number of civil rights groups have used their entire joint amicus brief to respond to Prof. Hamilton's constitutional arguments. They argue that the Court should not reach the constitutional issue, but, if it does, they urge the Court to uphold the constitutionality of RFRA as it applies to the federal government. Fourteen civil rights groups signed this joint amicus brief-- including some of the most influential groups in the area of church-state law. Among the signers were Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, American Jewish Congress, People for the American Way, American Jewish Committee, and the Unitarian Universalist Association.