BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Setting the stage for a two-month trial, a federal judge ruled Wednesday that the same law that bars the harassment of women seeking abortion services also applies to practitioners of the Chinese spiritual practice Falun Gong.
U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein emphasized in his order that the section on religious freedom was added “late in the legislative process to the 1994 law known as FACEA, short for the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act.
While “every circuit court of appeals that has considered the issue” of the law’s protection of abortion clinics has upheld that section as constitutional, Weinstein noted that he appears to be the first to consider the constitutionality of the so-called religion section.
The challenge stems from a lawsuit in Brooklyn by Zhang Jingrong and a dozen other Falun Gong practitioners, who claim that they are routinely harassed in violation of FACEA by a group called Chinese Anti-Cult World Alliance.
While the Falun Gong practitioners contend that the alliance is an arm of the Chinese government, the alliance deny that Falun Gong is a religion.
The alliance brought its constitutional challenge to FACEA meanwhile after Judge Weinstein opted in a previous ruling to treat Falun Gong as religion for the purposes of the case.
Just a day after a hearing on the group’s argument, which turns on an alleged conflict between FACEA and the commerce clause, Weinstein rejected the bid Wednesday.
“Religion, even when nonprofit, is deeply rooted in interstate commerce,” the 38-page ruling states. “It comprises a sizable portion of the United States economy. Houses of religious worship offer numerous valuable services to their congregates, support a large number of personnel, take in and expend considerable funds, own large tracts of land, and receive free municipal services, such as schooling assistance, roads, and police protection. Huge religious educational institutions operating over the internet draw students and billions of dollars in revenue from all over the country. Religion substantially contributes to our gross national product. Congress could reasonably have concluded that violence and intimidation to keep people out of houses of worship would substantially adversely affect interstate commerce. FACEA is constitutional in its design to protect that national commerce.”
FACEA’s text speaks specifically to protecting religious freedoms at a place of worship, but Weinstein said later in the ruling that the law “should not … be given such a limited interpretation.
“As already explained, ‘a place of religious worship’ in FACEA must be construed broadly to avoid a constitutional issue under the First Amendment: that religions using formal temples are not privileged over those that do not,” he wrote.
Weinstein touched on a similar point Tuesday at oral arguments because the Falun Gong focuses its proselytizing work, and its protest of the Chinese government, from a group of tables that the group has set up on Main Street in Flushing, Queens.
The tables are adjacent to “what they consider to be one of their temples,” but Weinstein emphasized Tuesday that places of worship cannot be reduced “to brick and mortar.”
“That’s discrimination right there,” he added.
Weinstein also certified his opinion Wednesday to be appealed ahead of trial. Noting that the case will require interpreters, and put 500 decisions to a jury, the judge noted Tuesday that the Falun Gong’s case would be “horrendously difficult” to try.
Several of the plaintiffs sat in the jury box with an interpreter Tuesday as Weinstein and lawyers for both sides discussed their briefs. At the end of the hearing, through the interpreter, the judge emphasized to the parties in the jury box that “in this country, it’s important not to hurt somebody because you disagree with their religious beliefs.”
He encouraged the parties to resolve the case and spend their time enjoying spring in New York City.
The Falun Gong claims that thousands of its members were arrested in China and sentenced to re-education training after the government there banned it in 1999. Those who refuse to part with their beliefs are executed.