"To an Unknown God," "Siege," and "The Cry of an Occasion" 

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Sacramental Freedom

In April 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the second time on a case it had sent back to the Oregon courts two years earlier. This case, known as Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, involved a pair of drug and alcohol-abuse counselors, Al Smith and Galen Black, who had been fired when they admitted to ingesting peyote during ceremonies of the Native American Church.

At first, almost no one connected with the Smith case believed it would have any significance beyond the parties involved. But as the legal process moved forward, it gathered momentum like a powerful cyclone. When the storm was over, the landscape of American constitutional law had been transformed. Well-established legal precedent had been swept away, and in its place was an opinion, written for the Court's majority by Justice Antonin Scalia — a stunningly bold judicial analysis that Garrett Epps — in his book "To an Unknown God: Religious Freedom on Trial" (St Martin's, $24.96) calls "the mother document of a radically new interpretation of the First Amendment's guarantee of the 'free exercise' of religion."

Epps, a former Washington Post reporter who currently teaches law at the University of Oregon, skillfully explains the complex legal theories and proceedings that make up the "biography" of the Smith case. Obviously, such explanations are necessary in a book like this: Epps makes them fascinating. But it's the richness of the human stories woven through and around the legal history that make this book so satisfying, and, at the same time, so unsettling.

Like a magnetic field, the story builds around the polarity of two men, Al Smith and Dave Frohnmayer, both powerful and charismatic figures. Smith, a member of the Klamath Tribe, painfully cut off from his native language and religion, a survivor of federal assimilation policies, alcoholism, prison and 20 years on skid row, became a highly successful substance-abuse and rehabilitation counselor.

Frohnmayer, Oregon's attorney general, a Rhodes scholar, passionate believer in the law and a rising star in the Republican Party, had tried to mend relations with Oregon's Native American tribes before the Smith case.

All of this makes the Smith story seem intensely personal, which it was and is. The Supreme Court's deliberations may appear abstract, removed from daily concerns, but in fact, they have a profound impact on how severely government can restrict personal freedom. In the aftermath of Smith, an amazingly broad coalition of religious groups and others lobbied Congress to achieve passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which the Supreme Court eventually struck down in another landmark case, City of Boerne v. Flores.

This story is a reminder that every landmark legal case, past and future, begins with the aspirations, conflicts and values of people like Smith and Frohnmayer. Ultimately, the legacy of the Supreme Court's decision in this case could be determined by a case involving anyone's religious practice — maybe yours, maybe mine —and that's what makes this book so important, so worth reading.

— David Bearinger

(Bearinger is associate director of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy and the editor of "The Bill of Rights, The Courts, and The Law.")


The Richmond Public Library is putting up for auction 13 autographed books, most published in fall 2000. They include such titles as Ridley Pearson's "Middle of Nowhere" and Michael Ondaatje's "Anvil's Ghost" You can see the books — and bid on them — in the lobby of the Main Library during the Friends of the Richmond Public Library's book sale March 30 and 31. Bids will also be accepted until 5 p.m. Saturday, April 15. The minimum bid will be the retail price of the book, and all bids must be in dollar increments. For details, call Pat McKay, 646-4514 or Beth Morelli at 646-3410.

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Roberta Culberson of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities has, along with W. Nathaniel Howell, written "Seige," (Va. Foundation for the Humanities, Howell,$14.95) This is the human story of the people caught inside the U.S. Embassy to Kuwait which was surrounded by Iraqi soldiers just before Desert Storm.

"The Cry of an Occasion" (Louisiana State University Press, $29.95) is a collection of short stories written by members of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Edited by Richard Bausch, it includes stories by such writers as Doris Betts, Madison Smartt Bell and Lee

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