August 4, 1999

Religious liberty bill passes House
___By Kenny Byrd
___Baptist Joint Committee
___WASHINGTON (ABP)--The U.S. House of Representatives has approved a bill that would require state and local governments to have a compelling reason before interfering with religious practices.
___On a 306-118 vote, House lawmakers approved the Religious Liberty Protection Act, sponsored by Reps. Charles Canady, R-Fla., and Chet Edwards, D-Texas.
___Canady said the legislation is designed "to ensure the free exercise of religion is not trampled on by the insensitive and heedless actions of the government."
___Edwards said he has been concerned in recent weeks about bills that would threaten the First Amendment's Establishment Clause in the wake of school shootings in Littleton, Colo. But "the legislation today does not focus on the Establishment Clause, rather it focuses on the importance of the Free Exercise Clause," Edwards said.
___RLPA is Congress' second attempt to remedy the Supreme Court's 1990 Employment Division vs. Smith ruling, which threw out the traditional "strict scrutiny" legal test and made it easier for government to interfere with religious practices.
___In 1993, Congress enacted and President Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to return the requirement that government had to show a "compelling interest" before interfering with religious practices. But in 1997, the Supreme Court ruled Congress lacked the authority to impose RFRA on the states. Lower courts have ruled that RFRA remains applicable on the federal level.
___While most House lawmakers generally agree that protection for religious liberty in the states is needed in the face of the 1990 decision, they disagree on how to go about it.
___RLPA would use Congress' spending-and-commerce powers to limit state and local governments' ability to place a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion. The law would require they employ the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling state interest such as health or safety. It includes a separate provision protecting churches and other religious organizations from restrictive zoning laws.
___Canady said the bill "is designed to provide the fundamental civil right of all Americans to practice their religion with a high level of protection consistent with other fundamental rights."
___More than 70 religious and civil liberties groups support the measure, including the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Baptist Joint Committee, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Jewish Committee and the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.
___Still other religious and civil liberties groups that once supported RFRA now oppose RLPA.
___The American Civil Liberties Union, which supported RLPA when it was first introduced in the last Congress, now opposes it over a possible threat to other civil and gay rights.
___An amendment offered by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., failed 190-234. It sought to prevent larger businesses from denying housing or employment to homosexuals because of religious beliefs while still allowing the privilege for religious groups, individuals and very small businesses.
___In support of his amendment, Nadler, who sponsored RLPA in the last Congress, said he now believes RLPA has a "terrible flaw" that his amendment would fix. RLPA should be used as a "shield" to protect religious liberty, not a "sword" against civil rights, he said.
___Canady spoke against Nadler's amendment, however, saying it would address concerns raised by only a few on the far left--"concerns based not on any current problem but pure speculation."

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