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A compromise on religious liberty

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NEW YORK, July 11 (JTA) — Due to overcrowding, parents at the Young Israel of New Rochelle, N.Y., synagogue are not able to pray with their children, many members cannot find a seat for Shabbat or holiday services and celebrations like Bar Mitzvahs must often exclude much of the community.

The synagogue members have stared across the street at their proposed expansion site for 15 years, without breaking ground.

Members of the synagogue board say they have been forced to deal with zoning restrictions, such as finding room for a required amount of parking spaces even when their Orthodox Jewish congregants walk to the synagogue for services, and conducting extensive ecological surveys.

“We’ve gone through a long, arduous, expensive process in order not to build an industrial plant, but a house of worship,” said board member Michael Turek.

Now legislation that was scheduled to be introduced into the U.S. Senate this week could aid the congregation’s battle to expand.

The Religious Liberty Protection Act being introduced by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is a newer, more limited version of a bill that has had a rocky history.

The new compromise version is more limited than what was first envisioned by its proponents, including many Jewish groups.

The proposed measure applies only to zoning regulations and the rights of “institutionalized persons,” including prisoners.

It requires state and local governments to supply a compelling reason for blocking the establishment of a synagogue, for example — and proof that the governments are blocking religious liberties by the “least restrictive means” possible.

In the case of prisoners, the legislation would allow them to better argue for a religious diet, permission to wear religious objects, or participate in religious observances.

The first version of RLPA weighed in on such issues as allowing Jewish children to wear yarmulkas in school, allowing minors to drink wine for religious purposes and laws that conflicted with the Orthodox prohibition against autopsies.

The legislation, known as RLPA, is the offspring of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed by Congress in 1993 and struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997.

The court ruled that Congress had overstepped its bounds and declared the law unconstitutional.

Following that ruling, every major Jewish organization, as well as numerous other religious and civil liberties groups, joined together to craft new legislation that would pass constitutional muster.

Jewish activists were surprised when a majority of Jewish lawmakers voted against RLPA, which passed the House of Representatives by a 306-118 vote last July.

Support from many Democrats faded when critics said a loophole in the law would allow for the violation of civil liberties. Opponents said, for example, that landlords or employers could refuse to rent or hire gays and lesbians, citing religious principles.

The bill became a flash point in the debate over which rights, religious liberties or civil liberties, take precedence.

As a result, several Jewish groups withdrew their support from the legislation.

“There was the threat that religious liberties might become a partisan issue, where the Democrats were on one side and the Republicans on the other, and it’s not good to the cause of long-term religious liberties in America, which has a history of crossing party lines,” said Matthew Dorf, director of government relations of the American Jewish Congress.

Last week, nearly a year after many abandoned the legislation, the coalition of religious and civil liberties that had been its driving force returned to the table to endorse a compromise proposal.

The new bill escapes civil liberties problems by avoiding the issue, focusing instead on just zoning and prisoners.

“This more limited approach avoids some of the civil rights issues that we and others had raised in terms of needing to be sensitive to existing civil rights protections, so that religious liberty claims could not be used as a sword,” said Michael Lieberman, the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington counsel.

Though the supporting groups are confident that the new bill can pass, their chief enemy is time, with roughly six weeks left to have the bill passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives and be signed by President Clinton.

“We’re pleased with the new bill,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs.

“We certainly would have preferred that the Senate pass the broader bill, but we’re clear-eyed about the political realities.”

Dorf agreed, saying that the AJCongress sees the bill as a “down payment” and the “first step” toward a full religious liberties bill.

But not everyone sees this as a first step.

Christopher Anders, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued hard against the original bill but supports the current version, warned that his group wouldn’t support legislation “that would cause even inadvertent harm to the enforcement of civil rights.”

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