The Supreme Court has just released a unanimous decision in O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal v. Ashcroft, a religious freedom case under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFLA). I blogged about the case previously, but the analysis I gave in that post was based off a really bad reading of City of Boerne v. Flores on my part, and is thus rather worthless. In any event, the Court ruled that the under the RFRA, the UDV Church could not be prosecuted under federal drug laws for the use of a controlled substance in their sacramental rites.
My TMV co-blogger Andrew Quinn calls the decision "a sloppy way of adjudicating", and thinks the Court needed to make a more "definitive call." Since I think the Court takes too much undeserved flak on it's decisions generally, and on it's religion cases specifically, I'm going to explain why this case was perfectly sensible and adjudicated in precisely the right way.
It's unclear from the post if Andrew has read the decision itself, or just a radio blurb and the brief CNN summary (word to the wise: never undertake to criticize a legal ruling based only on what you hear in the mainstream media. I guarantee you it's been dumbed down to the point where the important legal distinctions have been obliterated), but I think that it might be useful to give a bit of background on the legal context this case operates in. I think that knowing the history would explain why the Court did everything it needed to do, and in fact has answered most of Andrew's objections already.
In the beginning, there was Sherbert v. Verner. Sherbert was a free exercise case, and it basically held that laws which impinge on the free exercise of one's religion have to survive "strict scrutiny." This is the same test that's used in a variety of other fundamental rights contexts, and in a nutshell it says that the law is only valid if it is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. So, to use Andrew's example, preventing a religious group from engaging in human sacrifice would clearly pass strict scrutiny, because there is a compelling state interest in not letting people kill each other, and there's no real way to meet that interest other than banning it outright. But, for example, if a state wanted to ban religious solicitation because it bothered local homeowners, this probably would fail strict scrutiny, either because "preventing annoyance" is not a compelling state interest, or because an outright ban isn't the narrowest way to achieve that objective (see Cantwell v. Connecticut).
To me and many other folks, this was a very intelligent and common-sense test. However, in Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith, the Court effectively (if not explicitly) abandoned the Sherbert doctrine, and held that any generally applicable law automatically was not a Free Exercise Clause violation. That is, unless the law explicitly discriminated against a particular religious group, it could not be challenged under the Free Exercise Clause--the government did not have to show a "compelling state interest" or that the law was "narrowly tailored" or anything of the sort. Smith, as it happens, also dealt with sacramental drug use, in this case Native American use of Peyote.
Smith was a tremendously unpopular decision, and Congress quickly passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The goal of this act was simple: re-establish the Sherbert test for determining the validity of a general legislative prohibition as applied to a particular act. So, with Peyote, Congress quickly enacted an exception to it's general drug laws saying they don't apply to Peyote. But even had their been no such exemption, now the Native Americans could argue that the prohibition of their Peyote use was not a "compelling state interest" or that the blanket prohibition was not "narrowly tailored" to serve that end. That is, if the compelling state interest behind a blanket prohibition of Peyote is that its unhealthy, the Native Americans might be able to muster evidence that shows that their carefully supervised and monitored religious use has few to none of the health risks associated with recreational use.
Bringing us back to the case at hand, the Court's decision was a relatively straight-forward application of the RFRA. The question is whether or not the government had a compelling interest in prohibiting this group from using a drug essential to their religious practice. The Court concluded that they didn't, for a variety of good reasons they lay out in the opinion itself. This is not, as Andrew describes it, a "hazy grey area", but the application of a very specific federal statute with years of doctrinal history behind it. And the fact that the use of this drug is generally illegal is not "all we need to know", because federal law creates an exception to general laws when it burdens religious practice (subject, again, to the strict scrutiny test). "Compelling state interest" may be contested in certain cases (that's why we have litigation), but the Court here did exactly what it should: it took the pertinent rule (the Sherbert "strict scrutiny" doctrine), and applied it to the facts of the case at hand. That's not "call 'em like we see 'em." That's how one decides cases. The compelling state interest standard clearly answers Andrew's human sacrifice objection, and for situations that are perhaps a closer call, those cases should be decided when they're litigated, not pre-emptively without factual briefings and oral arguments.