Effort to Pass State Rfras Hits Roadblock in California
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Effort to Pass State Rfras Hits Roadblock in California

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The push to secure broad protections for religious practice around the country has hit a roadblock.

California Gov. Pete Wilson has said he will veto a new state religious freedom measure because it extends protections to prisoners. Wilson’s threat comes on the heels of a similar move in Illinois, where Gov. Jim Edgar has said he will not sign a religious freedom bill passed by the legislature unless it is amended to exclude prisoners.

The veto threats constitute a major setback to efforts to put new state religious freedom statutes on the books.

Since last year, state lawmakers have been working with a coalition of religious groups, including Jewish organizations, to craft legislation aimed at filling the void left when the Supreme Court invalidated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In striking down the 1993 law, commonly known as RFRA, the high court in essence said it was unconstitutional for Congress to dictate a standard for religious freedom to the states.

Seeking to adopt their own standards, the California and Illinois bills, as well as similar bills pending in state legislatures around the country, prohibit — as the original federal bill did — government from substantially burdening a person’s free exercise of religion unless there is a “compelling interest.”

While the First Amendment guarantees free religious exercise, activists say religious freedom legislation is necessary to secure religious rights when, for example, a law prohibits state employees from wearing hats or head coverings in the workplace.

“The difficulty for religious practice today is a sort of thoughtless government regulation, not intentional persecution,” said Marc Stern, co- director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department.

Seeking to restore as broad protections as possible in the wake of the Supreme Court’s action, religious freedom advocates have been urging Congress to adopt some new protections at the federal level. But activists have put most of their hopes into a campaign to effectively replicate the original RFRA state by state.

Florida passed a bill earlier this year, joining Connecticut and Rhode Island – – both of which adopted similar legislation in the early 1990s — as the only states with religious freedom statutes on the books.

In Michigan, a bill could come up this year before the legislature adjourns, but some lawmakers there also want to exempt prisoners.

Bills have been introduced in a handful of other states, including New York and New Jersey, but so far have not moved toward passage.

In California and Illinois, both Wilson and Edgar have argued that the accommodations for prisoners under the bills could create security problems.

Edgar has already issued a conditional veto, which effectively kills the bill unless the legislature changes it to exempt prisoners.

In California the measure was amended to state that an inmate’s exercise of religious rights may be subjected to reasonable restrictions. But that has not been enough to satisfy the state’s Department of Corrections. Officials are arguing that the bill would lead to inmate demands for different meals, work assignments and religious paraphernalia, including some items that they claim could be converted into weapons.

Wilson, siding with corrections officials, has opposed the bill, but has yet to take official action.

The objections over prisoners, meanwhile, pose a dilemma for supporters of the legislation.

“The coalition’s position has always been no exemptions — religious liberty for all,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel for the American Jewish Committee.

But activists are now weighing whether to support a watered-down version that exempts prisoners or to hold out for a “clean bill” at the risk of getting nothing.

The position they take, and the ultimate shape of the California and Illinois bills, will likely carry implications in the coming year for other states where religious freedom bills are pending.

“What happens with these bills will set the tone and, in some ways, dictate the starting point for our efforts to enact state RFRAs in the next session of legislatures after January,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.

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