Monsignor Mahoney wants to erect a steeple on his church. The city, however, limits the building heights to 500 feet. The steeple would be 501 feet. Mahoney was denied a building permit. Mahoney sued pursuant to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. How is this case likely to be decided?
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First of all, Mahoney’s case is likely to fail before any federal court decides on its merits. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is a federal law passed in 1993. However, in 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had no right to impose this law on the states. Therefore, the law cannot be applied to the actions of state or local governments. Unless the state in which Mahoney is hoping to build has passed its own RFRA in response to the 1997 decision, the RFRA cannot be applied to this case at all.
Let us assume that this case were to be decided on its merits. If it were, it is still unlikely that the city would be forced to allow Mahoney to build his overheight steeple. The reason for this is that the RFRA says that the government cannot “substantially burden a person’s freedom of religion” by imposing laws that seem to be neutral towards religion. However, it is very hard to imagine that Mahoney’s freedom of religion has been “substantially burdened.” The law will only ask him to reduce the height of his steeple by one foot. It would be hard to argue that this constitutes a substantial burden upon his freedom of religion.
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