Until 1990, the United States Supreme Court held states to a rigorous interpretation of the "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment. Two tests were applied when a state encroached on religious practice: Did it have "a compelling interest" in limiting such practice? And did it use the "least restrictive means" to achieve its ends?
That year, in a regrettable decision, the court reversed course, 6-to-3, in the Employment Division v. Smith case. That ruling involved a state narcotics-law ban on the religious use of peyote in a traditional native American ceremony. The court held that if a state law did not intentionally single out a religious practice, but had a more-general "rational" application, the restriction met constitutional muster.
Religious people of all stripes predicted the ruling would result in anti-religious mischief, and so it has. A fire department tried to force a Muslim firefighter to shave his beard. Local governments have used zoning laws to bar the erection of houses of worship or to ban Bible-study groups meeting in private homes. Prosecutors have gone after parents for home-schooling their children on religious grounds. Authorities have conducted autopsies in violation of Orthodox Jewish practice.
In an attempt to right the wrong, Congress in 1993 passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which restored the pre-1990 standard, citing the 14th Amendment. But the high court ruled in 1997 that lawmakers had exceeded their authority in seeking to enforce their definition of a constitutional right on state and local governments.
Several states responded by enacting their own laws protecting religious rights. Now Congress is trying again. Last week, the House passed the Religious Liberty Protection Act. This bill would attempt to meet any high-court test by limiting its scope to matters involving interstate commerce, federally funded programs, and land-use codes that blatantly discriminate against religious congregations.
The bill enjoys support from the Clinton administration; a wide spectrum of Jewish, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and other religious organizations; and citizens' groups ranging from the conservative Christian Coalition to the liberal People for the American Way.
Religious freedom is one of the most precious jewels of the American heritage. The history of accommodating religious minorities goes back to the Quakers and Mennonites in Colonial times. The framers of the Constitution, recognizing religion's valuable role in the national character, placed religious freedom first in the Bill of Rights. The Religious Liberty Protection Act is needed to bolster that freedom, and the Senate should pass it as soon as possible.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society