Use Laws, Not Amendment, Religious Groups Urge Hill

Article excerpt

Congress yesterday began considering ways to undo last month's Supreme Court ruling striking down a 1993 religious freedom law, an act the justices condemned as an abuse of power by the legislative branch.

But the witnesses at a House hearing yesterday weren't recommending that Congress fight back with an amendment to the Constitution.

Lawyers and scholars from several faiths instead said Congress should pass new laws, relying on its power to regulate interstate commerce and the Constitution's "necessary and proper" clause, to limit the states' ability to regulate and restrict religious practices.

A lawyer for the state of Ohio, which supported the Supreme Court's ruling, told the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution that Ohio is fashioning a law like the struck-down federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, that meets the state's needs, such as excluding prisoners from its protection.

"It would appear . . . that RFRA is still valid as to the federal government," said Rep. Charles T. Canady, Florida Republican and subcommittee chairman.

He noted, however, that the Supreme Court directed a lower court to review a federal case in light of its ruling that RFRA is invalid for individual states.

"If the federal component of RFRA is struck down, I believe Congress would be well within its authority to enact legislation that instructs federal agencies to accommodate religious practices that are substantially burdened by government's actions," Mr. Canady said.

Congress passed and President Clinton signed RFRA in 1993 after the high court ruled in 1990 that a state government does not need to show a "compelling interest" to justify general laws that may restrict sincerely held religious beliefs and expressions.

A Catholic parish in Texas used RFRA to fight a city zoning decision that it could not expand its historic sanctuary. …