CHARLES KRAUSE: The controversy began when St. Peter the Apostle Church, located in Boerne, Texas, just outside San Antonio, outgrew its 230-seat sanctuary several years ago. What it hoped to do was tear down all but the facade of its Spanish-style church, built in 1923, to construct a new building triple the size. The city authorities objected, saying the structure was a historic one, and denied the church a zoning permit. But the archdiocese decided to fight, claiming the city's decision under a local preservation law was unfair and in violation of a 1993 federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
FATHER TONY CUMMINS, St. Peter the Apostle Church: We feel they are applying the ordinance to the church unlawfully. I mean, their ordinance, itself, is fine, but when they apply it to the church, it's unlawful.
CHARLES KRAUSE: For its part, the town contends that the federal law cited by the archdiocese is unconstitutional.
MAYOR PATRICK HEATH, Boerne, Texas: Our position, of course, is that it is not constitutional, and that religious freedom is adequately guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
CHARLES KRAUSE: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act at the heart of the Supreme Court case was passed by Congress and signed by the President in 1993. It was an effort to limit the government's powers to infringe on religious freedom.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: The one thing that's happened since I've been President, the one thing that's happened that has--that got all the Christians together, the evangelicals and non-evangelicals, that got all the--every other religious group in America, all the strong support from the Jewish community, from the Muslims, and from others, was our attempts to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which basically changed a Supreme Court decision and says, again, that if a government of this country is going to restrict anybody's religious practice, it has to have an extraordinarily good reason for doing so; otherwise, the presumption is leave the religion alone.
CHARLES KRAUSE: It was an Oregon case that was the genesis for the 1993 law. Two state drug counselors were fired from their jobs for eating peyote. They were members of the Native American Church, and they argued that peyote, even though illegal, was central to their religion. But in 1990, the Supreme Court ruled that the state did, indeed, have a right to fire them. That ruling was extremely controversial because religious leaders from many faiths said it narrowed constitutional guarantees that protect freedom of religion.
Since then, the 1993 law that resulted from the peyote dispute has been invoked in nearly 300 cases, more than half of them by prison inmates, demanding such things as special clothing, food, and even feathers from bald eagles for religious purposes. One convict argued for conjugal visits, saying the Bible ordered him to multiply. At Lorton Federal Penitentiary outside Washington, D.C., prisoners asked for visitors by missionaries who later turned out to be drug smugglers. In another case, the city of Washington, D.C., tried to prevent a Presbyterian church from running a soup kitchen in a downtown residential neighborhood after neighbors objected to the soup kitchen, which serves the homeless.
A federal judge cited the 1993 religious freedom law when he ruled against the city, saying the soup kitchen was a theological issue the city has no business deciding. This case and many others will be affected by today's ruling. Meanwhile, in Boerne, Texas, the old St. Peter the Apostle Church still stands, but Masses for the congregation, which now numbers close to 5,000, are being held in a nearby gymnasium.