Jewish Groups Hail Signing of Bill on Religious Freedom

Jewish groups joined religious organizations from all corners of American society in hailing President Clinton’s signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act this week at the White House.

At a festive ceremony on the lawn of the Old Executive Office Building on Tuesday, Clinton signed the bill making it harder for the government to infringe upon the free exercise of religion.

“We all have a shared desire here to protect perhaps the most precious of all American liberties, religious freedom,” Clinton said, flanked by Vice President Al Gore.

The new law honors “the principle that our laws and institutions should not impede or hinder, but rather should protect and preserve fundamental religious liberties,” Clinton told the crowd, which included religious leaders and members of Congress.

“This is a proud and auspicious day for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience in this country,” said Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president of the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America.

A broad coalition of 68 religious and civil liberties groups worked for more than three years in a massive effort to push the bill through Congress and onto the president’s desk for his signature.

Clinton thanked the organization, called the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion, for the “central role” it played in drafting and passing the legislation.

‘MIRACLES CAN HAPPEN’ EVEN IN LEGISLATION

The coalition is proof that “the power of God is such that even in the legislative process miracles can happen,” Clinton said, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Due in large part to the coalition’s efforts, the bill was approved unanimously in the House of Representatives in May, and passed by a 97-3 margin in the Senate in October.

The act in effect reversed a 1990 Supreme Court ruling that made it easier for states to pass laws banning certain religious practices.

The case, Oregon Employment Division vs. Smith, forbade the use of the hallucinogen peyote in Native American religious practices.

Jewish groups joined the religious community in deploring the decision as a serious infringement of their First Amendment rights. The Jewish community was ecstatic about the bill’s signing.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, called it “the most important religious freedom bill of our lifetimes.”

“By creating a statutory right to free exercise of religion, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act restores free exercise to its rightful place as first among all other First Amendment rights,” Saperstein, a leader in the movement for the bill’s passage, said at a new conference.

Among the groups that joined the coalition were Agudath Israel of America, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith, the Council of Jewish Federations, the National Council of Jewish Women and the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

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