Reno Rejects Need for Exemption in Religious Freedom Legislation

In a move welcomed by many in the Jewish community, Attorney General Janet Reno has spoken out strongly in favor of a religious freedom bill currently pending in Congress.

Reno, already known as a backer of the bill, reiterated her support for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act at a news conference Thursday.

The bill, which would make it harder for the government to encroach on free exercise of religion, is supported by a broad coalition of Jewish and other religious groups.

It was designed to circumvent a 1990 Supreme Court ruling that gave states greater leeway in outlawing certain religious practices.

While the original court case dealt with ritual use of the hallucinogen peyote in Native American religious practices, Jewish groups consider the ruling a dangerous precedent for laws that could restrict such ritual practices as kosher slaughter.

In May, the bill unanimously passed the House of Representatives and passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 15-1 vote. But the full Senate has yet to take up the measure.

When the bill was introduced in Congress in March, supporters confidently predicted an early passage in both chambers of Congress.

But there is one issue posing a threat to easy Senate passage of the bill: the question of whether prisons will be exempt from the proposed new standards, which would require governments to prove a compelling state interest before regulating a religious practice.

A number of state attorneys general have been backing such an exemption for prisons.

They argue that if the bill were passed without such an exemption, prisoners would successfully seek special treatment in the name of religious freedom, and that this in turn would create upheaval in the country’s prisons.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has introduced legislation exempting prisons from the bill.

HAS BEEN ‘ABSOLUTELY SUPERB’

But Jewish and other religious groups, on the other hand, fear that if an exception is granted for one group, other groups will seek exemptions, and the carefully crafted legislation will be derailed.

The legislation was the result of months of negotiating among various interest groups, all of whom agreed not to ask for exemptions.

In addition, religious groups argue that a prison exemption is not necessary because they say the bill would not pose a threat to the legally recognized special needs of prisons.

At her weekly news conference Thursday, Reno took a position similar to that of the religious groups. The nation’s top law-enforcement official said she supported the legislation without any exemption for prisons.

“I think if you make an exception for prison, you should make an exception for so many things. And I think the one standard spelled out in the act can address religious freedom in all contexts and situations,” Reno said.

The attorney general also spoke favorably of the legislation during her confirmation hearings in March, noting that she and President Clinton supported quick passage of the bill.

Subsequently, she reviewed the issues surrounding the proposed prison exemption and sent a letter to Congress arguing that the prison exemption was unnecessary.

In a May 5 letter to Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Reno wrote that she “respectfully disagreed” with those arguing in favor of a prison exemption.

“From the moment she was nominated, Janet Reno has been absolutely superb on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, a major supporter of the bill who serves as director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“As the administrator of the nation’s largest prison system, she, better than anyone, is in a position to evaluate the arguments made by the state attorneys general,” said Mark Pelavin, Washington representative for the American Jewish Congress, another group backing the legislation without amendments.

Pelavin said that AJCongress, on behalf of the religious coalition supporting the bill, would be sending a letter to senators Monday rebutting the arguments of the attorneys general.

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