Final Passage of Breakthrough Religious Freedom Bill Hailed By Religious and Civil Rights Groups

July 28, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — An unusual collection of religious and advocacy groups today applauded the House and Senate for unanimously adopting landmark bipartisan legislation to protect religious freedom from unfair government restrictions.

“This legislation is a victory for all who cherish the basic American values of fairness and religious freedom,” said Christopher T. Anders, a legislative counsel for the ACLU. “Soon religious communities will no longer be subject to arbitrary or discriminatory government regulations that unfairly restrict their ability to worship.”

The bill’s dramatic passage was marked by down to the wire negotiating over its impact on historic preservation laws. With minutes left before Congress left town for the August recess, the Senate agreed to a unanimous consent request. The bill was then transferred to the House, where it passed just moments before the chamber closed for recess. The bill’s primary sponsors were Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Representatives Charles Canady (R-FL), Chet Edwards (D-TX) and Jerry Nadler (D-NY).

Named the “Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act,” the bill is the result of months of negotiation not only across party lines, but between groups that are traditionally pitted against one another in battles over the relationship between the government and religion. It is actively supported by a coalition of more than 60 groups, including the ACLU, the Family Research Council, the Baptist Joint Committee, the Christian Legal Society, the American Jewish Congress, and groups representing Christian denominations from Catholics to Mormons to Seventh Day Adventists.

The ACLU said the consensus legislation will provide important new protections for religious freedom without the potential for harmful civil rights problems raised by previous legislative efforts. The new bill focuses on land use for religious groups and religious freedom for people institutionalized in state facilities such as hospitals, group homes or prisons, the two areas in which the majority of conflicts between religious exercise and government arise. The ACLU led opposition last year to a religious liberty measure adopted by the House because of concerns that it would undermine state and local civil rights laws.

“Religion has been unfairly targeted by government regulation across the country,” said Terri Schroeder, an ACLU legislative representative. “The balance between the needs of religion and the larger community’s concerns has been off kilter for far too long. This bill will restore the equilibrium.”

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