Jews Hail U.S. Senate Vote to Enhance Religious Freedom

In a tremendous victory for a broad coalition of Jewish and other religious leaders, the Senate this week overwhelmingly passed a landmark bill to enhance religious freedom in the United States.

The 97-3 Senate vote Wednesday on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act came after a 31/2-year battle by the coalition of religious groups.

The legislation would make it harder for the government to encroach on the free exercise of religion.

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

The House of Representatives unanimously passed the bill earlier this year.

Not only did the bill’s backers push the legislation through the Senate, but they lobbied hard enough to beat back an amendment that would have offered exemptions for prisons.

Offered by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the prison amendment was defeated 58-41 on Wednesday.

Backers of the amendment feared an onslaught of prisoners demanding special treatment in the name of religious freedom.

Jewish leaders and others were concerned that if an exemption were made for prisons, other interest groups would seek additional exemptions, and the carefully crafted legislation would be derailed.

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Last week, a coalition of 38 religious leaders, led by the American Jewish Congress, wrote to U.S. senators urging passage of the act.

The bill was designed to circumvent a 1990 case, Oregon Employment Division vs. Smith, that dealt with the 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.

The Smith ruling has resulted in decisions unpalatable to people of various religions.

For example, Orthodox Jews have been required to undergo autopsies in some circumstances, in violation of their families’ religious beliefs.

Jewish groups greeted the bill’s passage with outpourings of enthusiasm, noting the effectiveness of the broad grass-roots coalition backing the bill.

The only senators to vote against the bill were Robert Byrd (D-W-Va.), Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Harlan Mathews (D-Tenn.).

The bill now returns to the House for a final vote.

It is then expected to be signed into law by President Clinton, who has said he supports the legislation.

Among the bill’s sponsors in Congress were Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

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