CONGRESS PASSES RELIGIOUS LIBERTY ACT
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
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
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
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
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.