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September 30, 2000
Column #996


     WASHINGTON - In the 1980's I was a member of a church in Darien, Conn. which had grown from 200 to 1,000 members, making it impossible to worship in our original small building. So we held services in Darien High School, paying $500 weekly for uninspiring space.

     We applied to the zoning board to permit an expansion of our A-frame church, but were denied permission twice. Neighbors said it would increase traffic, but we suspected the town enjoyed our rent of a building we did not want to be in. There was no way to appeal. 

     Last week President Clinton signed the ''Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act'' passed unanimously by Congress that will give congregations of all faiths the right to appeal a case like ours to federal courts. 

     There are hundreds of cases. Von G. Keetch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, widely known as Mormons, testified to the Judiciary Committee that an overlooked issue of religious liberty is ''the right of individual members to gather together in a place of worship, where they may learn from one another, edify each other, instruct one another, and receive important ordinances and blessings.''

     The Williamsburg Charter, signed in 1988 by 200 diverse leaders such as Billy Graham and former Presidents Ford and Carter, states: ''Religious liberty in a democracy is a right that may not be submitted to vote and depends on the outcome of no election. A society is only as just and free as it is respectful of this right, especially toward the beliefs of its smallest minorities and least popular (religious) communities.''

     As one of America's fastest growing denominations, the LDS Church is continuously before planning commissions seeking to build new buildings. When Mormons applied to build a temple in Forest Hills, a suburb of Nashville, it was denied because the area was zoned residential.  Therefore, the LDS Church applied to build one near several other churches, of about the same size. Again it was denied, because it would not be ''in the best interests of and promote the public health, safety, morals, convenience, order, prosperity and general welfare of the City.''

     Clearly, that's a denial of the Mormon's right of free exercise of religion.

     Keetch cited other cases: a Catholic hospital was denied accreditation based on its refusal to perform abortions despite its strong religious objections; a religious mission for the homeless run by the late Mother Teresa's order, was shut down because it was on the second floor of a building without an elevator.

     Law professors at Brigham Young studied 196 cases involving the right to build or expand a religious building and found that 49 percent of the cases involved minority religions with only 8 percent of the general population. 

     One reason these cases have arisen is that the Supreme Court, in a decision, ''Employment Division vs. Smith,'' ruled that only intentional violations of the free exercise clause were of constitutional concern. The ruling particularly harmed the religious freedom of prisoners. Catholic churches have had to go to court to protect the right of prisoners to practice the sacrament of confession, without fear their confidential testimony would be turned over to police. 

     Half of the prisoner cases involved Muslims, according to Sharifa Alkhateeb, director of the Muslim Education Council. One prison warden refused the request of Muslims, two-thirds of whom were African-American, to hold Friday prayer services because it might ''incite anger between various groups in the prison, jeopardizing the safety of the whole prison community.'' This was nonsense. Black Muslims are often the cleanest, most orderly and least addictive prisoners. 

     Congress responded by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Guidelines were established allowing the right of prisoners to have congregational prayer. But in 1997, the Supreme Court overturned RFRA in a case called ''Boeme vs. Flores,'' involving the request of a Catholic church to expand its small facility, which was denied by the Boeme, Texas historical commission who did not want to disturb the old church's charm. Of course, it was built for worship, not charm. Hundreds could not get into their tiny church.

     ''Our free exercise rights are in peril,'' Dr. Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Congress. The result is the new law.

     Land praised Congress and Clinton for ''acting to restore at least a portion of the religious free-exercise rights protected by the First Amendment. Americans now have more freedom to exercise their religious faith.'' 

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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