October 6, 1999

Diverse religious liberty
coalition parts ways over RLPA

___By Tom Strode
___SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission
___WASHINGTON (BP)--Some longtime leaders in a coalition advancing the Religious Liberty Protection Act in Congress have withdrawn support two months after it overwhelmingly passed the U.S. House of Representatives.
___Among the organizations no longer backing RLPA are Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the National Council of Churches, People for the American Way and the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.
___The Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, meanwhile, continues to support RLPA but will no longer work actively for its passage, a spokesman said.
___The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and others reiterated they will continue to work for its adoption.
___RLPA requires a governmental entity to show it has a "compelling interest" and its action is the "least restrictive means" in furthering that interest before it can substantially burden a person's religious expression. Unlike a broader piece of legislation enacted in 1993 only to be struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, RLPA utilizes the spending clause, the interstate commerce clause and the 14th Amendment of the Constitution to restore this test.
___A diverse coalition of religious and civil liberties organizations were united behind the bill until the American Civil Liberties Union, a former supporter, introduced a new issue earlier this year that threatened to peel off some support in Congress and the coalition.
___The ACLU said it would oppose the bill unless Congress amended it to protect local and state civil rights such as gender, marital status and sexual orientation, which includes homosexuality. The Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, leading homosexual rights political organizations, joined the ACLU in calling RLPA a threat to civil rights. The legislation, they said, would allow discrimination against homosexuals and others in housing and employment.
___Nearly all the coalition members opposed any attempt to make an exception for civil rights laws, and the House adopted RLPA in a 306-118 vote in mid-July. The majority consisted of 107 Democrats as well as 199 Republicans. An attempt to amend the bill to provide an exemption for cases dealing with housing and employment failed.
___The NAACP Legal Defense Fund withdrew its support at about the same time, and former RLPA leaders in the House, Reps. Jerrold Nadler, D.-N.Y., and Barney Frank, D.-Mass., already had come out against the legislation without a civil rights amendment.
___In a coalition meeting Sept. 14, several organizations announced they would either no longer support or work actively for the bill. In interviews Sept. 23 and 24, some of them cited political and judicial reasons, not new sympathy for the arguments of homosexual rights activists, as the basis for their decisions.
___While still endorsing the legislation, the BJC is "not prepared to lobby heavily" for RLPA, because "we think the chances of passing it in the Senate are next to nil," said Brent Walker, the agency's general counsel.
___The homosexual rights argument is "certainly" the point of opposition "driving the debate," Walker acknowledged. But that doesn't influence the BJC's position, "because we have always maintained that religious freedom should be the first freedom and there should be no carve-out for civil rights," he said.
___Instead of pushing RLPA forward, the BJC "would be open to a more focused measure dealing with land and zoning, number one, because there's plenty of problems; number two, because its constitutional grounding is firm, and number three, because it is something that can pass," Walker said.
___Oliver "Buzz" Thomas of the National Council of Churches called his organization's withdrawal from the coaltion a "sad, sad development" but a "pragmatic, political judgment."
___The NCC chose not to invest its resources in "a bruising political battle that we could lose, but even if we win is likely to be struck down by the court," said Thomas, who has served with Walker as co-chair of the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion.
___"I am deeply frustrated and disappointed that some of my friends and colleagues in the civil rights community have declared war on this piece of legislation, but at this point we don't have a single Democratic senator willing to sign on as a cosponsor," Thomas said. "We don't agree with them. We have not changed our opinion on the compelling-interest standard. This is a change of strategy on our part, not a change of principle."
___Remaining supporters of RLPA disagreed with Walker and Thomas' political and constitutional assessments.
___"We are just as supportive of this legislation as we have been from the beginning," said Shannon Royce, new legislative counsel for the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "We are working with hope of success.
___"It's become clear that many in the coalition do not care enough about religious freedom for all, as they claimed, to fight for it," said Mariam Bell, director of federal affairs for Justice Fellowship.
___"We've just come from a stunning victory in the House, and then to go into the Senate and say, 'Well, we'd better pull back,' just defies one's imagination. And again, where are their principles? This is the same RLPA we drafted together. ... And for them to pull back from legislation they helped draft is cowardly."
___Justice Fellowship is the public-policy arm of Prison Fellowship.
___Among other organizations still actively supporting RLPA, Casey said, are Family Research Council, National Association of Evangelicals, American Center for Law and Justice, Christian Coalition, U.S. Catholic Conference, Prison Fellowship, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


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