Illinois House reaffirms religious freedom-bill, even for prisoners

Wednesday, November 18, 1998

The Illinois Legislature has taken the first step toward overriding Gov. Jim Edgar's amendment to its religious freedom restoration bill.

Passed overwhelmingly by both chambers earlier this year, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was modeled after a 1993 federal version, which has since been invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court. The bill would require state courts to use the “compelling interest/least restrictive means” test when deciding if generally applicable laws or government actions infringe upon a person's religious-liberty rights.

In mid-August, Gov. Jim Edgar sent the bill back to the Legislature with an amendment. In particular, Edgar, instructed the Legislature to exempt state prisoners from the law. In an accompanying message, Edgar said he wanted to ensure “that inmates not be free to pursue gang interests under the guise of religious exercise.”

The Illinois House of Representatives, however, voted 110-3 to override Edgar's amendment, with four members abstaining. The Senate must also vote to override or keep Edgar's amendment.

The Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion, an unusual group of organized religions and civil rights groups that drafted and urged the passage of the federal RFRA, had called on the Illinois lawmakers to override Edgar's change to the bill.

Johnathan Levine, a director for the American Jewish Committee, which is a member of the coalition, lauded yesterday's vote.

“This is overwhelming,” Levine said. “We are extremely pleased, because this sends a strong message to the Senate that religious freedom must be preserved for all, even for prisoners.”

Levine added that the argument that state prison officials would become overburdened with prisoner claims of religious violations was “specious.” Under the federal RFRA, Levine said, the number of prisoner claims had been minuscule.

Shortly after Edgar's amendatory veto, the bill's principal sponsor, Rep. Lauren Beth Gash, told the Chicago Tribune that she was not leaning toward seeking an override and that she was not sure the exemption was “that significant to most legislators.”

Steffen Johnson, a Chicago attorney and spokesman for the Illinois Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion, said that hard work and prayer spurred the override vote.

“We believe that religious freedom is a God-given right,” Johnson said. “No one would deny that there are unique limitations on religious freedom in prisons, but I think the vote was a testimony to the fact that prisoners' religious-freedom rights cannot be completely abrogated. The vote revealed that administrative convenience is not more important that religious freedom.”

The Senate may vote on the measure within a few weeks, Levine said.