Congress Debates Religion Bill: Critics Contend It Would Open Loophole in Civil Rights

By Vanderkam, Laura R. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 24, 1999 | Go to article overview

Congress Debates Religion Bill: Critics Contend It Would Open Loophole in Civil Rights


Vanderkam, Laura R., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The federal government should guarantee religious freedom, supporters of new legislation say to Congress, but critics claim the measure would create too large an exception to anti-discrimination laws.

Both sides converged on a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday to debate the Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA), currently in the House of Representatives.

"Our first freedom shouldn't categorically lose out to government interest," Steve T. McFarland of the Christian Legal Society said.

But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, warned that a federal law could jeopardize civil-rights laws.

"We must protect citizens against blatant religious bigotry but be careful not to undermine existing laws protecting other civil liberties," he said.

The RLPA is Congress' answer to the 1997 Supreme Court decision in City of Boerne vs. Flores, which struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The RFRA was originally passed to counter another Supreme Court decision, which said states can forbid religious expression under generally applicable, neutral laws.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican, said he was "bitterly disappointed" with the court's decisions, and that legislation was needed to guarantee religious freedom.

Nathan J. Diament of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America testified that greater religious protection was needed because local zoning boards targeted Orthodox Jewish communities. Orthodox congregations in New Rochelle, N.Y., and Beechwood, Ohio, were forbidden from building new synagogues or renovating existing structures, Mr. Diament said.

Michael P. Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, also said religious liberty needed additional protection. He cited a case in Oak Harbor, Wash., where a judge placed a 13-year-old boy in foster care because the boy's parents required him to attend church three times a week. …

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