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Florida's High Court Affirms Religious Freedom Entitled to Expanded Protection
By Allie Martin and Jody Brown September 8, 2004
(AgapePress) - The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act expands protection for religious freedom. The court said religious freedom in the Sunshine State is entitled to greater protection than that guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.
Earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court issued an opinion in the case of Warner v. City of Boca Raton stating that the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act (FRFRA) "expands the scope of religious protection beyond the conduct considered protected" by cases from the U.S. Supreme Court. "We also hold that under the Act, any law, even a neutral law of general applicability, is subject to the strict scrutiny standard where the law substantially burdens the free exercise of religion," the court stated.
The court explained that a religious belief is substantially burdened if the government either "compels the religious adherent to engage in conduct that his religion forbids, or forbids him to engage in conduct that his religion requires." In addition, the court stated that "a person must only establish that the government has placed a substantial burden on a practice motivated by a sincere religious belief."
What that means, according to an example offered by Florida-based Liberty Counsel, is that a person can have a religious belief in home schooling even if that approach to education is not an expressly stated doctrine of the person's church.
Mat Staver, president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel, drafted and lobbied for the FRFRA in 1998, and had also filed an amicus brief with the state's high court explaining the legislative intent of the Act. He expects the ruling to have a major impact on other states.
"This is a great sign for other states that don't have similar religious freedom laws to pass those laws," the attorney says. "Protecting the free exercise of religion is one of the first duties of government. The greatness of government can be measured by its commitment to protecting religious freedom."
Staver believes the ruling will send a "green light" to other states to pass similar laws because it "resoundingly affirm[s] that states can pass legislation -- and that courts must abide by this additional protection."
According to Liberty Counsel, the high court cited two zoning cases in its decision -- one which involved a Baptist church that wanted to expand its Christian school, and another involving a feeding program for homeless people. The court approved the latter, which acknowledged free exercise rights, but disapproved of the case involving the Baptist church, which rejected free exercise rights.
Liberty Counsel litigated -- and lost -- the Baptist church case, but also won an almost identical zoning claim under FRFRA before the same appeals court. Staver's firm says now that the Florida Supreme Court has sided with its arguments that were rejected in the Baptist church decision, it intends to reopen that case. --------------
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