Bill Introduced in Congress to Restore Religious Freedom

A bill has been introduced in both the Senate and the House of Representatives to require state and federal governments to show a compelling governmental interest for any law that prohibits a religious practice.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act seeks to restore the protection for religious practices to what it was before the April 18 Supreme Court decision in Oregon Employment Division vs. Smith, widely known as the “Peyote Case.”

That decision was seen by religious and secular groups across the country as virtually eliminating the First Amendment clause barring any infringement on the establishment of religion.

Many of these groups have organized into the Committee for the Free Exercise of Religion. At a Capitol Hill news conference Friday, the coalition was represented by diverse groups such as the American Jewish Congress, Agudath Israel of America, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Evangelicals.

Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y), who initiated the restoration bill and introduced it Friday in the House, said at the news conference that “support for this bill is ecumenical, both religiously and politically.”

A similar bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C), ranking Republican on the committee.

PEVOTE IN RITUAL CEREMONY

In the Smith case, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Oregon could deny unemployment compensation to two American Indian drug counselors who were fired for having used peyote in a ritual ceremony of the Native American Church.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion, went further and said the court “never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the state is free to regulate.”

This caused Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who had voted with the majority in support of the Oregon action, to dissent from Scalia’s wider interpretation.

The Scalia view, supported by four other justices, is “incompatible with our nation’s fundamental commitment to individual religious liberty,” O’Connor said.

Henry Siegman, executive director of AJCongress, said that the bill “would restore 50 years of judicial protection for the rights of all religious observers, particularly for religious minorities.”

Many of the groups represented in the coalition sought in vain in May to have the Supreme Court hear the case again.

In addition to the AJCongress, Jewish organizations in the coalition are:

Agudath Israel, American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, National Council of Jewish Women, National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

ADL issued a statement Thursday urging Congress to support the proposed legislation.

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