On to the Courts: Coalition Resumes Vigilance on Religious Freedom Laws

A broad-based coalition of more than 60 religious and civil liberties groups, including Jewish organizations, have joined forces to oppose legal challenges to the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act.

Under the legislation passed last year, no law can ban or restrict religious practices unless the government proves a compelling reason.

The coalition, which includes the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, originally united to support congressional action on the bill.

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

The case, Oregon Employment Division vs. Smith, dealt with the use of the hallucinogen peyote in the religious practices of some Native Americans.

Jewish groups considered the ruling a dangerous precedent for laws that could restrict such ritual practices as kosher slaughter.

Since enactment of the legislation, the coalition has continued to meet regularly, according to Mark Pelavin, AJCongress’ Washington director.

It has now united to sign on to friend-of-the-court briefs in six pending lawsuits in New York, he said.

Marc Stern, AJCongress’ legal counsel, wrote the briefs with assistance from attorneys from other coalition members.

New York state has argued that Congress, in passing the Religious Freedom Act, overstepped its bounds by restricting powers reserved for the states under the Constitution.

The coalition, however, argues in its briefs that “in enacting RFRA, Congress was enforcing a right with firm roots in constitutional text and history.”

There are currently 15 religious freedom-related cases in courts across the country, according to the Baptist Joint Committee, which is actively involved in the coalition.

The coalition has chosen to weigh in on those that involve challenges to the law’s constitutionality, according to Pelavin.

The remaining cases primarily focus on prisoner rights and involve such issues as how far a jail must go to provide for specific religious accommodations.

Members of the coalition include groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Muslim Council and the Christian Legal Society.

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