State senator urges passage of new religious-liberty protection bill

Wednesday, May 19, 1999

A California state lawmaker is once again urging the enactment of a religious-liberty protection bill that would make it much more difficult for state government to enforce land-use regulations.

Last year, then-Assemblyman Joe Baca introduced the Religious Freedom Protection Act that was a copy of a congressional version — the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 — invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997. Baca's bill would have required state courts to use the “compelling interest/least restrictive means” test when deciding if laws or government actions applicable to everyone happen to infringe unconstitutionally upon some people's religious beliefs or practices. RFRA of 1993 was written by the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion in an attempt to codify the “compelling interest/least restrictive means” test.

The bill passed both houses of the Assembly but was vetoed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson. Wilson said the bill “would weaken prison regulations and law enforcement with costly lawsuits seeking to subordinate our criminal laws to criminal defendants' supposed religious beliefs.”

Baca, now a state senator, has reintroduced a greatly scaled-down version of the 1998 bill. This year's Religious Freedom Protection Act would apply only to land-use regulations that could affect the time, place or manner of a religious service. The bill is pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to conduct hearings this week on the constitutionality of the bill.

Members of the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion, which the California Senate has referred to as a coalition of religious groups, have submitted arguments to lawmakers that land-use regulations burden the free exercise of religion.

According to the coalition, California regulations bar the use of private homes as regular sites of religious worship, make it difficult if not impossible for congregations to receive permits for additions to their buildings, and limit the types of activities that may be performed in houses of worship.

The act is “needed because we're dealing with the fundamental right of individuals in regards to religion,” Baca said in a prepared statement.

Marci Hamilton, a constitutional law scholar and professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, says the new California bill unconstitutionally singles out religious entities for beneficial treatment. Hamilton notes that Baca's bill gives only religious institutions — not all nonprofit organizations — exemptions from the state's land- use laws.

“Besides violating the establishment clause, I'm concerned about the ramifications on land-use regulations,” Hamilton said. “One of the high priorities of the coalition and religious groups is to see churches unaffected by land-use laws. You have Protestant congregations building these mega-churches that not only have houses of worship, but also include day-care centers, restaurants, and auto-care facilities. We are no longer talking about single houses of worship, but these mega-centers with goals of replacing popular culture.”

California Religious Protection Act
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