Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal
NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is
being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.
The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been
prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.
See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321, 337.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL, et al. v. O CENTRO ESPIRITA BENEFICENTE UNIAO DO VEGETAL et al.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT
Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) in response to Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, 494 U. S. 872, where, in upholding a generally applicable law that burdened the sacramental use of peyote, this Court held that the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause does not require judges to engage in a case-by-case assessment of the religious burdens imposed by facially constitutional laws, id., at 883–890. Among other things, RFRA prohibits the Federal Government from substantially burdening a person's exercise of religion, "even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability," 42 U. S. C. §2000bb–1(a), except when the Government can "demonstrat[e] that application of the burden to the person (1) [furthers] a compelling government interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that... interest," §2000bb–1(b).
Members of respondent church (UDV) receive communion by drinking hoasca, a tea brewed from plants unique to the Amazon Rainforest that contains DMT, a hallucinogen regulated under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, see 21 U. S. C. §812(c), Schedule I(c). After U. S. Customs inspectors seized a hoasca shipment to the American UDV and threatened prosecution, the UDV filed this suit for declaratory and injunctive relief, alleging, inter alia, that applying the Controlled Substances Act to the UDV's sacramental hoasca use violates RFRA. At a hearing on the UDV's preliminary injunction motion, the Government conceded that the challenged application would substantially burden a sincere exercise of religion, but argued that this burden did not violate RFRA because applying the Controlled Substances Act was the least restrictive means of advancing three compelling governmental interests: protecting UDV members' health and safety, preventing the diversion of hoasca from the church to recreational users, and complying with the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances. The District Court granted relief, concluding that, because the parties' evidence on health risks and diversion was equally balanced, the Government had failed to demonstrate a compelling interest justifying the substantial burden on the UDV. The court also held that the 1971 Convention does not apply to hoasca. The Tenth Circuit affirmed.
Held: The courts below did not err in determining that the Government failed to demonstrate, at the preliminary injunction stage, a compelling interest in barring the UDV's sacramental use of hoasca. Pp. 6–19.
1. This Court rejects the Government's argument that evidentiary equipoise as to potential harm and diversion is an insufficient basis for a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act. Given that the Government conceded the UDV's prima facie RFRA case in the District Court and that the evidence found to be in equipoise related to an affirmative defense as to which the Government bore the burden of proof, the UDV effectively demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits. The Government's argument that, although it would bear the burden of demonstrating a compelling interest at trial on the merits, the UDV should have borne the burden of disproving such interests at the preliminary injunction hearing is foreclosed by Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union, 542 U. S. 656, 666. There, in affirming the grant of a preliminary injunction against the Government, this Court reasoned that the burdens with respect to the compelling interest test at the preliminary injunction stage track the burdens at trial. The Government's attempt to limit the Ashcroft rule to content-based restrictions on speech is unavailing. The fact that Ashcroft involved such a restriction in no way affected the Court's assessment of the consequences of having the burden at trial for preliminary injunction purposes. Congress' express decision to legislate the compelling interest test indicates that RFRA challenges should be adjudicated in the same way as the test's constitutionally mandated applications, including at the preliminary injunction stage. Pp. 6–8.
(a) RFRA and its strict scrutiny test contemplate an inquiry more focused than the Government's categorical approach. RFRA requires the Government to demonstrate that the compelling interest test is satisfied through application of the challenged law "to the person"—the particular claimant whose sincere exercise of religion is being substantially burdened. 42 U. S. C. §2000bb–1(b). Section 2000bb(b)(1) expressly adopted the compelling interest test of Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U. S. 398, and Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U. S. 205. There, the Court looked beyond broadly formulated interests justifying the general applicability of government mandates, scrutinized the asserted harms, and granted specific exemptions to particular religious claimants. Id., at 213, 221, 236; Sherbert, supra, at 410. Outside the Free Exercise area as well, the Court has noted that "[c]ontext matters" in applying the compelling interest test, Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U. S. 306, 327, and has emphasized that strict scrutiny's fundamental purpose is to take "relevant differences" into account, Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Peña, 515 U. S. 200, 228. Pp. 9–10.
3. The Government argues unpersuasively that it has a compelling interest in complying with the 1971 U. N. Convention. While this Court does not agree with the District Court that the Convention does not cover hoasca, that does not automatically mean that the Government has demonstrated a compelling interest in applying the Controlled Substances Act, which implements the Convention, to the UDV's sacramental use. At this stage, it suffices that the Government did not submit any evidence addressing the international consequences of granting the UDV an exemption, but simply relied on two affidavits by State Department officials attesting to the general (and undoubted) importance of honoring international obligations and maintaining the United States' leadership in the international war on drugs. Under RFRA, invocation of such general interests, standing alone, is not enough. Pp. 16–18.
389 F. 3d 973, affirmed and remanded.