Illinois Senate panel approves religious freedom act

Friday, March 13, 1998

Illinois has joined a growing list of states attempting to enact religious freedom protection bills mirroring the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated last year.

An Illinois Senate committee voted 10-0 on March 11 to approve a bill requiring religious believers be exempt from state laws that conflict with their faith.

The bill, which now heads to the full Senate, prohibits governments from burdening the free exercise of religion unless they have a compelling interest in doing so. Also, it would force governments to show their compelling interest is accomplished by laws using the least restrictive means possible.

The Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion–the group that drafted the federal version that was successfully challenged by a Texas city last year–has been lobbying for Illinois lawmakers to pass the bill.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Boerne v. Flores ruled that Congress did not have constitutional authority to mandate a new standard for states to determine when the religious liberty rights of their citizens were in jeopardy. The high court's ruling let stand a lower federal court's decision that officials in Boerne, Texas did not have to show a compelling interest in its zoning laws that prevented the expansion of a Catholic church.

Coalition leaders, disappointed by the federal version's demise, promptly mounted efforts to encourage individual states to enact their own religious protection acts. They argue that judicial interpretation of the First Amendment's Free exercise clause has left religious believers vulnerable to an array of secular laws like zoning, anti-discrimination and immunization.

Other state legislatures working to enact similar legislation include California, Michigan, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and New Jersey. Coalition officials say they are nearing completion of a new federal version.

“Even though the U.S. Constitution and Illinois Constitution both provide for freedom of religion, it's critical to have religious freedoms protected by state law with an appropriate mechanism in place to determine whether a person's rights have been violated,” said Sen. Kathleen Parker, R-Northbrook, a supporter of the bill.

Senate Minority Leader Emil Jones, D-Chicago, said he supports the bill, but is concerned it may be too broad and therefore may interfere with the state's ability to enforce laws.

“It's very broad in concept,” he said. “People have been know to violate anti-discrimination laws if they have a religious reason to violate those laws. And what happens if a cop refuses to work on a murder case because he is against the death penalty?”

Coalition officials, however, argue that for years judicial interpretation of the free-exercise provision required religious believers to be exempt from non-discriminatory secular law. It was not until the high court's 1990 Employment Div., v. Smith decision that the a majority of justices ruled that the Free-exercise clause does not force governments to provide religious believers exemptions from non-discriminatory laws, like zoning and anti-discrimination laws.

The Illinois Senate is expected to vote on the religious freedom protection act by the end of April.