Restores Special Protections for Religious Groups
WASHINGTON, DC — President Clinton signed into law Friday a bill designed to restore strong legal protections for religious freedom when conflicts arise with cities, zoning boards, prisons and nursing homes, the Los Angeles Times reported today.
The law, which requires local officials to give special treatment to churches, synagogues and religious assemblies or lose their federal funding, is aimed at protecting historic cathedrals and storefront churches. Often these congregations run into conflicts with neighborhoods and business districts over parking, traffic, zoning or new construction, particularly if the members bring with them a new religion or style of worship.
"No government shall impose a land-use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person," except where officials can show a "compelling" reason, the law says.
Supporters, including a broad spectrum of religious and civil liberties groups, hope that the president's signature will end a 10-year struggle over the status of religious liberty in American law.
An unusually broad coalition — including the conservative Christian Coalition and Family Research Council as well as the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way — came together to support the legislation.
"We agreed the government should not be in the business of regulating people's exercise of their religion," said Christopher T. Anders, ACLU legislative counsel.
The National Association of Counties contended that the legislation represents an "unwarranted and excessive intrusion" into local government's land-use authority.
The law is a scaled-down version of a religious liberty bill that ran into sudden opposition last year. Gay rights leaders and civil rights activists were concerned that the bill would have allowed landlords and employers to refuse to deal with gays and lesbians by citing religious objections.
Two months ago, House and Senate sponsors agreed to narrow the bill so that it would address only land-use disputes and religious conflicts involving people under the control of others, such as prisoners and nursing home patients.
Until 1990, the Supreme Court had said that the First Amendment's guarantee of the "free exercise of religion" usually required the government to make exceptions for religious claimants. The Amish, for example, could not be compelled to send their children to high school, it said, and states could not deny unemployment benefits to Seventh-day Adventists who refused to work on Saturdays.
But in 1990, the High Court reversed itself in a case involving two Native Americans who had been fired from state jobs after they ingested peyote, a hallucinogen that they said was central to their religious celebrations.
Speaking for a 5-4 majority in the case of Oregon vs. Smith, Justice Antonin Scalia said that religious claimants are not entitled to special exemptions from ordinary laws. The government can enforce laws against everyone equally, so long as a religious group is not singled out for discriminatory treatment.
Scalia's opinion surprised mainstream church leaders because it left no room for the special status of religion. If it were read literally, for example, the Roman Catholic Church could have been sued for illegal sex discrimination because it refused to hire women as priests.
Congress took up the issue and, in 1993, passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The measure reversed the Court's ruling and restored religion to a special place under the law.