Note on invalidation of RFRA

The decision of the United States Supreme Court in CITY OF BOERNE v. FLORES, ARCHBISHOP OF SAN ANTONIO, et al., 521 U.S. 507, decided June 25, 1997, held the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) unconstitutional as a violation of the "separation of powers" in the Constitution.

While the constitutionality of the Act had been questioned by some courts, others had upheld or not questioned it. The Supreme Court decision now settles the matter.

The invalidation of the Act may not have much of an impact on prison conditions, since the Act itself allowed courts to defer to prison authorities on issues of "security" affecting exercise of spiritual practices.

Although the preliminary injunction memo in the Trapp case was oriented around RFRA, the basic case is not dependent on RFRA. In Massachusetts, the invalidation of the Act should not diminish protection for free exercise of religion, because Massachusetts state law provides greater protection than federal law. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts stated in Attorney General v. Desilets, 418 Mass. 316, 636 NE2d 233 (1994), that it would not follow the U.S. Supreme Court's restricted interpretation of "free exercise" announced in Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 110 S. Ct. 1595, 108 L. Ed. 2d 876 (1990). Instead, the SJC said, in interpreting the state constitution, it would continue to apply the older test of "compelling state interest" that RFRA was designed to reinstate in federal law.


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Updated: 4 August 1997