Ensuring that a Sunday school classroom has smoke detectors does not infringe on anyone’s practice of religion. Requiring the beams and trusses holding up the roof above a church sanctuary to meet engineering standards enables congregations to worship without fear that the ceiling will collapse on them. The same sensible standards apply to places of worship that protect the safety and health of Texans in other buildings they enter. A bill heard this week, H.J.R. 110 (Isaac) would amend the Texas Constitution in a way that would prevent such sensible city requirements.
The resolution seems deceptively simple, but would overturn decades of judicial precedent relating to the right to practice religion. How? By removing one word: “substantially”. The current-law judicial test for determining whether a government practice relating to religion is unconstitutional requires a “substantial burden” on a person’s ability to practice his or her religion. Under that test, uniform and generally-applicable regulations won’t usually be found unconstitutional. For example, a municipal requirement that a place of worship obtain a building permit and comply with uniform building codes won’t be unconstitutional, because it is not a substantial burden on a person’s ability to build a worship facility. By removing “substantially,” H.J.R. 110 would strike down any ordinance that “burdens” religion by even a small amount.
Further, H.J.R. 110 would open the floodgates for lawsuits seeking protection for every kind of bizarre religious practice imaginable. Attempts to enforce animal cruelty laws, child protection laws, health regulations, or public nuisance ordinances against alleged “religious practices” would bring needless litigation.
The Texas Religious Freedom Act as it’s currently written protects religion by balancing that important freedom with public safety concerns. H.J.R. 110 would destroy that balance. To view the eloquent testimony in opposition to H.J.R. 110 by the author of the current state law, click here and fast forward to 1 hour and 34 minutes into the hearing:
For a detailed review of similar measures being proposed across the country, click here to read an article by Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Cardozo School of Law.