WASHINGTON — In a victory for religious freedom, the Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected the Bush administration's claim that it can bar a small congregation in New Mexico from using a hallucinogenic tea during its rituals.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., speaking for a unanimous court, said the government had not shown the harm in allowing 130 followers of a Brazilian sect to use their tea.
Administration lawyers had argued that strict federal drug laws should prevail over their claim of religious freedom. They conceded that the congregation's rituals involved a "sincere exercise of religion," but U.S. customs officials nonetheless seized the shipments of sacramental tea known as hoasca.
The congregation of O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal sued to block the government's action, and it won at all levels of the federal court system.
Roberts cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 measure in which Congress said officials should not burden religious practices except when there was a "compelling" need to do so.
In this case, Roberts said, the government had not demonstrated a compelling need. Instead, it has argued that the hallucinogen must be banned in all instances, he said.
"The government's argument echoes the classic rejoinder of bureaucrats throughout history: If I make an exception for you, I'll have to make one for everybody, so no exceptions," Roberts said.
He said the law required the government to consider on a case-by-case basis whether its action could infringe on the freedom of religion.
Religious groups, both conservative and liberal, applauded the ruling.
K. Hollyn Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee, said the decision was "good news for religious freedom and the continuing vitality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act."
However, the law itself was sharply limited by the Supreme Court in 1997 when the justices ruled it could not be enforced against cities and states.
Tuesday's ruling also did not turn on the 1st Amendment's protection of the "free exercise of religion." All eight voting justices agreed, however, that Congress could forbid federal officials to infringe on religious practices in most instances.
New Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. did not participate in the ruling because he was not there when the case of Gonzales vs. O Centro Espirito was argued in November.
Meanwhile, in a short, unsigned opinion, the court reopened a racial discrimination lawsuit because a plant manager had referred to two black men as "boy." The two men were superintendents at a poultry plant owned by Tyson Foods Inc., and they sued after they were passed over for promotions that went to white employees. A jury in Alabama ruled for them and awarded them damages.
But a federal judge in Alabama and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled for Tyson and said the black employees had not proved they were denied the promotions because of racial animus.
The appeals court dismissed evidence that the white plant manager had called the men "boy," commenting that the "use of 'boy' alone is not evidence of discrimination."
Lawyers for Tyson had said the manager was "rude and curt to all employees -- white and black." But the Supreme Court did not buy that argument, and it ordered the appeals court to reconsider the case.
"The court's decision is erroneous," the justices said in Ash vs. Tyson Foods. "Although it is true the disputed word ('boy') will not always be evidence of racial animus, it does not follow that the term, standing alone, is always benign."
Because the brief ruling spoke for all the justices, it constitutes the first ruling by Alito.