California Senate passes religious-protection bill

Friday, August 14, 1998

After months of debate regarding the ramifications of a religious-protection act, the California Senate has moved the bill one step closer to becoming law.

The Senate on Wednesday approved the Religious Freedom Protection Act by a 25-3 vote. The Assembly, the state's lower legislative house, unanimously passed a version of the act in January. The Assembly is expected to offer a concurring vote on the Senate's action early next week.

The act, introduced by Assemblyman Joe Baca, would require state courts to use a strict legal standard when deciding if a law infringes on a person's First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.

That standard would require courts to use the “compelling interest/least restrictive means” test when deciding if laws that apply to everyone happen to impinge upon some people's religious practices. The test was codified by Congress in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, voided the law last year noting Congress did not have the constitutional authority to determine religious-liberty jurisprudence.

Since RFRA's demise, the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion, an association of religious and civil rights groups, has lobbied state lawmakers nationwide to implement their own versions. The coalition has been heavily involved in the California Assembly's work on the bill.

Although Baca's bill was quickly passed the Assembly, it had been tied up in the Senate where debate had largely centered on how the act might affect on the state's numerous anti-discrimination laws and penal system.

The religious-protection act passed the Senate with language that nothing “in this act shall be construed to alter the existing balance between religious-liberty claims and other civil and constitutional rights.” Additionally, the Senate passed several amendments to the bill stating that government has a strong interest in enforcing child protection laws and regulating prisons.

David Waskow, a spokesman for the American Jewish Congress, which is a member of the coalition, said that the coalition is pleased with the Senate's actions.

“Those amendments are fine and they point to interests that government reasonably has,” Waskow said. The bill is not meant to force a certain outcome, but “it is meant to institute a workable and tested process for adjudicating these kinds of cases.”

Waskow said he was not sure whether Gov. Pete Wilson would sign or veto the bill but that Wilson might be swayed by the opposition of the state's Department of Corrections.

Michael Neal, assistant director of the Corrections Department, told lawmakers in June that the act would hamper the department's ability to control inmates.

“Certainly litigation will increase as many religious requests presently are not accommodated for legitimate penological interests of security, such as religious paraphernalia which could be converted into a weapon or religious garb of colors related to gangs,” Neal said.

Waskow, however, said the Senate's bill contains language noting that the act would not necessarily trump the Corrections Department's regulations of inmate behavior.

“We think their concerns are not founded,” he said. “Especially given the record of the number of lawsuits that emerged under RFRA and given the fact that prisons frequently won.”