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Congress Oks Bill to Discourage Local Laws That Block Synagogues

Jewish groups are praising passage of a religious liberty bill – despite the legislation’s limited scope and effect.

During the past several years, legislation designed to protect religious groups and minorities has undergone many changes and produced some discord among Jewish organizations.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, passed July 27 by the U.S. House and Senate, requires state and local governments to provide compelling reasons for zoning laws that block religious institutions.

Many religious institutions say churches, synagogues and other religious assemblies are often discriminated against through unreasonable land-use regulations.

The Orthodox Union hailed the bill’s passage, saying Jewish communities now can build synagogues without discrimination or undue interference from government authorities.

The religious land use act also establishes the rights of prisoners and nursing home and group home patients to freely exercise their religion.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a co-sponsor of the bill, said prisoners and mental health patients have not been allowed to practice their faith, including Jewish prisoners who have been prevented from having matzah during Passover even when Jewish groups donated the food for free.

The land use act is a more limited version of the Religious Liberties Protection Act, which failed last year. That bill ran into trouble when some supporters, including the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said the bill would have endangered certain civil rights protections.

In a statement, the Religious Action Center said the current legislation is of “monumental importance” as it will ensure “religious life in America will flourish without undue government interference.”

The American Jewish Congress, which fought long and hard on the issue, said the bill provides “important protection” but does not provide universal protection for religious liberty.

The AJCongress said the effort to provide more comprehensive protection for religious liberty will now shift to state legislatures and state and federal courts.

The bill passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate in a last- minute rush before Congress broke for its August recess.

President Clinton is expected to sign the bill soon.

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