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Behind the Headlines: Bill to Restore Religious Guarantees Faces Fight from Anti-abortion Groups

A bill intended to make it tougher for states to enact laws that could infringe on religious liberties has run into opposition infringe on religious liberties has run into opposition from anti-abortion abortion groups.

The bill, introduced in the House of Representatives last week with broad support from Jewish groups, is intruded t circumvent a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that said states no longer had to demonstrate a ” compelling interest” before enacting laws that might bar certain religious practices.

Jewish groups fear the April 1990 ruling could permit states to outlaw such religious practices as the drinking of Sabbath wine by minors or the wearing of kippot by children in the public schools.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1991, which is expected to be introduced in the Senate later this month, would again require states to show that laws impinging on religious freedom serve a necessary state interest.

Jewish groups consider the bill the most important religious liberty legislation ever to come before Congress.

When a similar bill was introduced in Congress last July of religious groups.

But now so-called pro-life groups are concerned that the “compelling state interest test” could be used to overturn state laws regulating abortion, on the grounds that they would violate a woman’s religious right to have an abortion.

These opponents of the bill, which include the National Right to Life Committee, the U.S. Catholic Conference and key anti-abortion law makers, cite a 1979 decision by a federal district court judge in Brooklyn that struck down an anti-abortion law on religious liberty grounds.

ABORTION EXEMPTION OPPOSED

While the Catholic Conference is against any law that could invalidate legislative mechanism for guaranteeing that laws do not impose undue hardship on individual religious practices.

The conference is suggesting that the House bill be amended to exempt abortion laws from having to meet the “compelling interest” test.

But the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.), recently argued that if such a provision were incorporated, the coalition that supports the proposed legislation would “come apart, and we wouldn’t be able to pass the bill.”

Neither the American Jewish Committee nor the American Jewish Congress expressed any interest in backing such a modification, even if it meant ensuring passage of the bill.

Mark Pelavin, AJCongress Washington representative, said he “can’t think of anything more inconsistent with religious liberties” than to divide religious freedom guarantees that way.

Samuel Rabinove, legal director of the AJCommittee, said his a woman’s desire to have an abortion for religious reason is ” a matter of religious belief and conviction” equal to other free-exercise interests that an individual has.

The House bill has 41 co-sponsors besides Solarz, 35 of whom are Democrats. The Senate bill will be introduced by Sens. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

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