Religious-Freedom Law Marks First Anniversary

Article excerpt

After neighbors complained, zoning officials in Washington, D.C., sought to block a Presbyterian church from running a feeding program for poor and homeless residents. The church won its case in court this past September, thanks to a law with the unlikely acronym of RFRA. RFRA - the Religious Freedom Restoration Act - was signed into law in November 1993 in an effort to keep the government from impinging on Americans' religious freedom. Under the law local, state and national government officials must show a "compelling state interest" before they can block a religious practice.

A little over a year later, RFRA is credited m4th helping religious groups that were beleaguered by what they saw as an erosion of their rights by the courts and legislative bodies. At the same time the new law has defied the predictions of its critics, who claimed it would open the way for all manner of bizarre and dangerous religious practices. "In its first year of application, it has worked very well," said J. Brent Walker, general counsel of the Washington-based Baptist Joint Committee, a coalition of 12 Baptist bodies that works on church-state and religious-liberty issues. "Although we haven't won all the cases, RFRA tilts the playing field. A year ago we would have lost almost every case." "It's still in its infancy," added Steven Green, legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State (also Washington-based). "People are still trying to figure out how it works. But so far the experience is good."

RFRA was prompted by a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith, which involved antidrug laws and the religious use of peyote in the Native American Church. Going beyond the specific issues of the case, the court scrapped the standard under which government needed to show a "compelling state interest" before it could restrict the free exercise of religion.

The ruling sent shock waves through the religious community, as well as through secular groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, involved in church-state issues. …