The Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“TRFRA”) provides that “a government
agency may not substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion” unless “the government agency
demonstrates that the application of the burden to the person . . . is in furtherance of a compelling
government interest; and . . . is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.” Tex. Civ. Prac. &
Rem. Code Ann. § 110.003(a)-(b) (Vernon 2005). TRFRA defines “free exercise of religion” as an act or
refusal to act that is substantially motivated by sincere religious belief. Id. § 110.001(a). Under TRFRA, the
plaintiff bears the initial burden of showing that the government is substantially burdening his free exercise
of religion. Footnote Balawajder v. Tex. Dep’t of Crim. Justice, 217 S.W.3d 20, 26 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st
Dist.] 2006, pet. denied). The government then must demonstrate that the burden is in furtherance of a
compelling governmental interest and that it is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. Tex.
Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 110.003(b) (Vernon 2005). We must keep in mind that this is a “case-by-
case, fact-specific inquiry.” Barr v. City of Sinton, No. 06-0074, – S.W.3d – , 2009 WL 1712798, *9 (Tex.
June 19, 2009). And, as the Barr court noted, there is “no cause to pretend that the task . . . is an easy
one.” Id. at *13.
The Texas Supreme Court has recently declined to state a bright-line rule for determining when a person’s
free exercise of religion has been “substantially burdened.” Barr, 2009 WL 1712798 at *9. It did note with
approval, however, the Fifth Circuit’s holding that, under RLUIPA, “a government action or regulation
creates a ‘substantial burden’ on a religious exercise if it truly pressures the adherent to significantly modify
his religious behavior and significantly violate his religious beliefs.” Id. (citing Adkins v. Kaspar, 393 F.3d
559, 570 (5th Cir. 2004)). “The burden must be measured, of course, from the person’s perspective, not the
government’s.” Id. (emphasis added). In Barr, the court had “no hesitation” in holding that a city zoning
ordinance prohibiting a pastor from operating a “biblically supported” halfway house for convicts was a
“substantial burden” on the pastor’s free exercise of religion. Id. at *10.
Harris County Medical Examiner v. Saghian (Tex.App.- Houston [1st Dist.] Oct. 8, 2009)(Hanks)
(autopsy, free exercise of religion, Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, temporary injunction
preventing autopsy vacated, standing)
REVERSE TC JUDGMENT AND REMAND CASE TO TC FOR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS:
Opinion by Justice Hanks
Before Justices Jennings, Hanks and Bland
01-07-00951-CV Harris County Medical Examiner Luis Arturo Sanchez, M.D. v. Afsaneh Saghian
Appeal from 133rd District Court of Harris County
Trial Court Judge: Hon. Lamar McCorkle
Under the holding in Barr, to conduct the kind of fact-intensive analysis of whether a person’s religious
beliefs would be or have been substantially burdened, we must first have evidence of that person’s
particular religious beliefs regarding the complained-of governmental conduct. However, in this case, Mrs.
Saghian never testified or offered any evidence establishing either her or her husband’s personal religious
beliefs regarding autopsies. Footnote Specifically, Mrs. Saghian provided no testimony that she and her
husband were observant Orthodox Jews who personally adhered to the belief of bodily resurrection and
were opposed to an autopsy based on the tenets of their faith. Instead, she presented the affidavit and live
testimony of three rabbis, none of whom established these facts critical to evaluating a claim under TRFRA.
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