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The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 is constitutional as applied to federal age discrimination law, a divided 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. Vacating the dismissal of an age discrimination suit brought by a minister who was forced to retire from his church at age 70, Judges Ralph K. Winter and Barrington D. Parker said further findings were necessary to determine whether the minister’s case can proceed. The decision in Hankins v. Lyght, 04-0743-cv., over the dissent of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, means the case of Methodist minister John Paul Hankins heads back to Eastern District Judge Denis R. Hurley. Hankins challenged his dismissal by Bishop Ernest S. Lyght, who acted under the mandatory age 70 retirement policy of the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Among his claims was a violation of the Age Discrimination and Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). Hurley dismissed the case based on the ADEA’s “ministerial exception,” which is recognized by several circuits and holds that civil rights laws cannot cover a minister’s employment relationship with a church without substantially burdening religious freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. �2000bb, states that government may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion,”even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability,” but it may burden the exercise of religion if it can show it is furthering “a compelling governmental interest” and if the action “is the least restrictive means” of doing so, an exception that “applies to all federal law.” At the circuit, Winter and Parker found that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is constitutional and therefore amended the ADEA. Winter, writing for the majority, said the Religious Freedom Restoration Act “must be deemed to the full expression of Congress’s intent with regard to the religion-related issues before us and displace earlier judge-made doctrines that might have been used to ameliorate the ADEA’s impact on religious organizations and activities.” The Religious Freedom Restoration Act Winter said, was passed in response to Employment Div. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), where the U.S. Supreme Court held that “the right of free exercise does not relieve the individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes.)” Congress passed the law pursuant to the Necessary and Proper Clause of Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, but the U.S. Supreme Court later found that the law was unconstitutional as applied to state law. AMENDMENT AUTHORITY The same was not true for federal law, Winter said, announcing that the 2nd Circuit was joining other circuits in holding “that the RFRA is constitutional as applied to federal law under the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution,” and thus, the issue becomes a simple one — whether Congress had the authority to amend the ADEA to include the Religious Freedom Restoration Act standard.” The answer was yes, he said. “It is obvious to us that because Congress had the power to enact the ADEA, [under the Commerce Clause] it also had the power to amend that statute by passing the RFRA,” he said. “The RFRA was authorized by the Necessary and Proper Clause because its purpose — to protect First Amendment rights as interpreted by Congress … was permissible.” Hankins presented a post-argument letter brief in which he argued that the application of the RFRA to federal law violates separation of power principles and the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. The circuit rejected his argument, and, having found the RFRA to be an amendment to the ADEA, and therefore constitutional, remanded the case to Hurley. “The parties have not briefed the issue of how it impacts the merits of this case,” Winter said. “The district court did not apply the RFRA, relying instead on the ‘ministerial exception’ to the ADEA. We believe that, while the RFRA’s application is a matter of law, it would be appropriate to hear from the district court first.” Sotomayor’s dissent said the RFRA “is not relevant to this dispute” for three reasons. First, Bishop Lyght and the church “unambiguously indicated” they were not raising an RFRA defense and thus waived the statute’s protections. Second, the statute does not apply to private parties, she said. Finally, she said, there was no need to reach the RFRA issue because Supreme Court and 2nd Circuit precedent mandates that the ADEA “does not govern disputes between a religious entity and its spiritual leaders.” Bruce Miles Sullivan of Stony Brook represented Hankins. Frederick K. Brewington of Hempstead represented Bishop Lyght and the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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