Reading the Tea Leaves


Many of the groups challenging the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act on religious-liberty grounds hang their hopes on one Supreme Court case: Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal. Decided in 2006, it is the only case regarding the substantive requirements of* the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to have come before the High Court thus far.

The superficial attraction of O Centro is obvious. As mandated by RFRA, the Court applied the “strict scrutiny” test, and the religious claimants won. The Court decided that the federal government had not proved a compelling state interest in stopping a tiny religious sect from using hoasca, a sacramental tea made from a hallucinogen banned under federal law.

Congress passed RFRA in 1993. It was a direct response to Employment Division v. Smith (1990), in which the Supreme Court held that the Free Exercise Clause did not require the state of Oregon to exempt Native Americans using peyote in their worship services from antidrug laws, which were neutral laws of general applicability. RFRA...

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About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.