Public overlooking important implications of recent religious-protection act

Sunday, October 1, 2000

Shouting matches and lawsuits over “school prayer,” holiday displays, vouchers and other church-state issues may grab the headlines. But the media and the public largely ignore conflicts over the free exercise of religion that have even greater implications for millions of religious Americans.

Consider the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) signed into law by President Clinton on Sept. 22. The act protects freedom of religion by requiring the state to show a compelling government interest before burdening the free exercise of religion in two situations:

1.When state or local governments seek to impose or implement a zoning or landmark law in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise.

2.When state or local governments seek to impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of people residing or confined to state facilities such as hospitals, group homes, nursing homes and prisons.

Why haven’t we heard more about this? We’ve had countless news reports and commentaries this summer about the Supreme Court’s “football prayer” ruling, but almost no coverage of the debate over this important piece of legislation.

Blame public indifference. People on both sides get all worked up about a few minutes of non-denominational prayer at school events or a Nativity scene in city hall but seem not to care much about the many ways in which government laws and regulations limit freedom of religion.

Maybe the indifference has something to do with the fact that many of these cases involve minority religions whose plight doesn’t seem to stir popular concern.

For example, there seemed to be little public outrage when a Native American prisoner was denied a sweat-lodge ceremony before his execution. Would the reaction have been different if a Catholic prisoner had been denied last rites?

But if the majority faiths think these issues don’t involve them, they are sadly mistaken. These days, government regulations often limit the freedom of religious groups, both small and large.

A few typical examples: A Catholic congregation is told it can’t change its church altar because the building is an historic landmark. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints is told that it can’t build a temple because such a building isn’t in the “aesthetic interests” of the community. Jewish prisoners are denied matzo during Passover, even though Jewish groups are willing to pick up the cost.

Fortunately, the leaders of many religious and civil liberties groups are alert to the growing threat to religious freedom from governmental action and regulation, and they have persuaded Congress and the president to pass this new legislation.

The act doesn’t give religious groups immunity from zoning regulations. Nor does it mean that the religious needs of people in prisons or other state institutions are always accommodated.

It simply means that the government must show a compelling interest in order to substantially burden the free exercise of religion.

By focusing on zoning and institutionalized persons, RLUIPA is a limited bill that fails to fully restore what was taken away in a 1990 Supreme Court decision: the ability of citizens to seek exemptions from laws that seriously burden their religious practice.

But this act is an important step in the right direction. It reaffirms and strengthens our national commitment to do all that we can to protect the right of every citizen to “follow the dictates of conscience” in matters of faith. That’s what James Madison had in mind when he drafted the First Amendment more than 200 years ago.

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