Illinois lawmakers pass religious-freedom bill, despite governor’s concerns

Thursday, December 3, 1998

The Illinois Legislature has overwhelmingly ignored the governor's suggestions to exclude state prisoners from its religious protection bill.

By a vote of 55-0, the Illinois Senate yesterday overrode Gov. Jim Edgar's amendatory veto of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Illinois' RFRA was modeled after a 1993 federal version that was invalidated last summer by the U.S. Supreme Court. Last month the Illinois House of Representatives voted 110-3 to reject Edgar's changes to the bill. Both chambers had passed the bill earlier this year.

The new law requires 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 other words, the government cannot interfere with religious activity without a compelling reason. Any necessary interference must be as minimal as possible. The compelling-interest requirement is the toughest constitutional-law test for a government to meet.

After the bill's passage, Edgar came under immense pressure from state prison officials to exempt prisoners from the bill. Edgar complied in a veto message sent with the bill back to the Legislature in August. The governor said he wanted to ensure “that inmates not be free to pursue gang interests under the guise of religious exercise.”

Since the demise of the federal RFRA, a large coalition of religious and civil rights groups has called on states to pass their own RFRAs. The Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion has staunchly insisted that states not exclude prisoners from such laws.

The California Assembly passed a religious-protection bill earlier this year, but it was vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson because of the controversy over prisoners.

Before the votes in the Illinois Legislature, aides to the governor had predicted his amendment would not be overridden.

Marc Stern, an attorney with the American Jewish Congress, which is a member of the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion said he had not been optimistic that the Legislature would override the governor's change.

“I can't tell you happy I am,” Stern said. “The vote is a combination of years of work for us and others and it is a particularly bold step in light of the governor's veto message, which was based on the politically popular position of excluding prisoners from the law.”

Stern said the victory in Illinois should force the coalition to “put great emphasis on the states.” The coalition has also drafted a new federal version, which is bogged down in both judiciary committees in Congress.

Jonathan Levine, a director for the American Jewish Committee, also a member of the coalition, lauded Illinois lawmakers.

“By overriding Gov. Jim Edgar's amendatory veto, which excluded prisoners from religious liberty guarantees provided under RFRA, the Illinois General Assembly has affirmed that everyone in Illinois, including the most powerless and unpopular, has the right to practice his or her religion without undue interference from the government.”