Freedom of Religion – Part 2

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that a city’s decision to “condemn” church property through the power of eminent domain did not violate the church’s first amendment rights.

Church Law and Tax2002-03-01

Freedom of Religion

Key point 13-02.1. In the Smith case (1990) the Supreme Court ruled that a neutral law of general applicability is presumably valid and need not be supported by a compelling government interest to be consistent with the first amendment, even if it interferes with the exercise of religion.

The Free Exercise Clause

* The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that a city’s decision to "condemn" church property through the power of eminent domain did not violate the church’s first amendment rights. An inner-city church claimed that the city’s attempt to acquire its property through "condemnation" (eminent domain) violated its first amendment rights of religious freedom and association. The city relied on a United States Supreme Court decision holding that "neutral laws of general applicability" are presumably valid and need no proof of a "compelling government interest" to be constitutional. Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990). In the Smith case the Supreme Court observed that a law must be justified by a compelling government interest if it burdens a second constitutional right in addition to religious freedom. The Court observed, “The only decisions in which we have held that the first amendment bars application of a neutral, generally applicable law to religiously motivated action have involved not the free exercise clause alone, but the free exercise clause in conjunction with other constitutional protections, such as freedom of speech and of the press ….” In other words, if a neutral and generally applicable law or governmental practice burdens the exercise of religion, then the compelling governmental interest standard can be triggered if the religious institution or adherent can point to some other first amendment interest that is being violated.

The church in this case argued that the city’s power of eminent domain burdened not only its first amendment right of religious freedom, but also its constitutional right of free association, and therefore the city could not condemn the church’s property without first proving a compelling interest. The church asserted that no such interest existed. The Indiana Supreme Court rejected the church’s argument. The court concluded that while freedom of association is a constitutional right, it cannot be considered a "separate" right from the right to religious freedom since it is encompassed in the right to the free exercise of religion.

Application. This case significantly erodes the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom as a result of the court’s refusal to see religious freedom and freedom of association as two distinct first amendment rights. City Chapel Evangelical Free Church v. City of South Bend, 744 N.E.2d 443 (Ind. 2001).

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