New bill to expand freedom of worship has broad backing

Sunday, July 23, 2000

Although it hasn't made the headlines, a new bill introduced in Congress this week could have far-reaching implications for religious freedom in America.

The “Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act” is co-sponsored by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and endorsed by a broad coalition of more than 50 religious and civil liberties groups from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Family Research Council.

As the name suggests, the bill is intended to prevent local land-use laws from restricting Americans' right to worship, and to protect the religious freedom of people institutionalized in state facilities such as hospitals, group homes, nursing homes and prisons.

Why do we need legislation to ensure the “free exercise” of religion already guaranteed by the First Amendment? Because a 1990 Supreme Court decision made it more difficult for citizens to win exemptions from laws that burden religious practice.

The current bill is the second attempt by Congress to get around that decision by mandating that governments show a compelling state interest before denying a religious exemption to a general law.

The Supreme Court declared the first attempt unconstitutional in 1997, ruling that Congress had overstepped its powers by requiring the “compelling interest test” for religious objections to any law.

By targeting land-use laws and the treatment of institutionalized people, supporters of the current bill hope to pass constitutional muster this time around.

In extensive congressional hearings, religious groups offered a litany of horror stories detailing how local governments have used restrictions on land use to keep places of worship out of some neighborhoods, to limit the ability of churches to serve the poor and to otherwise interfere with religious freedom. A few examples:

  • Zoning laws in the northern suburbs of Chicago make it very difficult for a house of worship to be built there.
  • An Orthodox Jewish congregation was denied a special-use permit to gather in a Los Angeles home, although local authorities allowed various other places of assembly in the same neighborhood.
  • Places of worship in Richmond, Va,. must pay a substantial fee for a conditional-use permit in order to feed the homeless. The ordinance mandating the permit also limits the times when places of worship may feed the hungry to seven days between October 1 and April 1.
  • A Colorado county imposes limits on the size of congregations. Another county has sought to limit the operational hours of churches.

If passed by Congress, this new federal law would not allow land-use laws to interfere with houses of worship, unless the government could demonstrate that such laws are the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling state interest (such as health or safety).

The bill would also ensure that the right of institutionalized persons to practice their faith is protected. This has been a particular problem in prisons, where authorities are frequently unwilling to accommodate inmates' religious requirements.

Nothing in this bill would threaten regulations in correctional facilities, and other legislation already tightly limits frivolous lawsuits by prisoners. But the bill would mean that prison officials couldn't deny prisoners the right to practice their faith, unless there was no other way of maintaining the necessary order and discipline.

Opponents of the new bill believe that it gives religious people and groups special rights not intended by the First Amendment. Moreover, they argue that exempting religious groups from zoning laws may lead to conflicts in many neighborhoods as places of worship seek exemptions from ordinances that govern such things as parking, noise and building size.

But if government can pass laws or regulations that restrict our ability to worship, then the First Amendment's guarantee of “free exercise” of religion means little.

It's time for Congress to rein in the power of government to interfere in matters of faith. Enacting this bill would be a significant step in that direction.