Tennessee Municipal League to review religion law

Friday, September 11, 2009

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Municipal League says it may discuss an
effort to repeal or modify a new law it believes sets the stage for legal
challenges to multiple state statutes and local ordinances that interfere with
professed religious beliefs.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which took effect July 7, puts in
place a “strict scrutiny” legal rule that makes it easier for people claiming a
law or ordinance violates their religious beliefs to win their cases. The bill,
H.B. 1598, passed the Tennessee General Assembly in June with little notice and
was signed by Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen on July 1.

According to an article published by the Tennessee Municipal League,
“Tennessee state and local governments will now face an uphill battle in
upholding laws of general applicability when someone claiming religious offense
cries foul.”

The article was written by Josh Jones, a legal consultant for the University
of Tennessee's Municipal Advisory Service, and appeared in the current issue of
Town and City, the TML's official newspaper. Carole Graves, communications
director for the statewide organization representing city governments and editor
of the newspaper, told The Knoxville News Sentinel that the article was
published because many city officials may not be aware of the new law and its

Supporters of the law said the concerns were unfounded.

“All we've said (in the law) is simply that the first freedom is the freedom
of religion,” said former state Republican Sen. David Fowler, the president of
Family Action of Tennessee, which lobbied for passage of the measure.

“If it requires local governments to think about what they're doing rather
than proceed willy-nilly, well, there's nothing wrong with that. It's
appropriate to ask the government: 'Is there a compelling reason for what we're
doing? Is there a lesser way to accomplish it without [affecting] someone's
religious freedom?'”

House sponsor Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, said the law “simply restores a
doctrine we had in place until 1990″ and would protect religious expression, not
threaten needed laws.

As an example of why it is good to have such a law on the books, Lynn cited a
school in her district that required children to cover up the word “God” on
signs they brought to a function on school grounds. The signs had statements
such as “in God we trust,” she said.

“The state has no compelling interest in having the word 'God' covered,” she
said. “If you're talking about a law that would protect people's lives, that
would be a compelling interest” that a court could uphold under the law.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in
Tennessee, said her organization was concerned about the new law being used as
“a guise to discriminate” by governments passing laws to favor one religion over

“There are always unintended consequences when you legislate in areas like
this,” she said.

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