ACLU Hails Plans to Sign Religious Freedom Bill into Law

September 22, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Marking the end of a long and contentious struggle, the American Civil Liberties Union heralded President Clinton’s plan to sign into law today legislation that will protect religious freedom from unfair government restrictions.

“The bill’s signing will be 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. “Religious communities will no longer be subject to arbitrary or discriminatory government regulations that unfairly restrict their ability to worship.”

The bill was passed unanimously by both the House and Senate just moments before the chambers adjourned for August recess. The bill’s primary sponsors were Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Reps. Charles Canady (R-FL), Chet Edwards (D-TX) and Jerry Nadler (D-NY).

“Despite alarmists’ claims to the contrary, this law will merely restore basic rights that existed until 1990, when the Supreme Court gutted Americans’ right to freely exercise their religion,” Anders said.

Named the “Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act,” the law 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 that would have undermined state and local civil rights laws.

The result of months of negotiation across party lines, and between groups that are traditionally pitted against one another, the law is supported by more than 60 groups, including the ACLU, the Family Research Council, the Baptist Joint Committee, the Christian Legal Society, the American Jewish Congress, and Christian denominations ranging from Catholics to Mormons to Seventh Day Adventists.

Claims by disgruntled opponents of the law that it will exempt religious groups from obeying zoning laws are simply untrue, the ACLU said. The proposed legislation would merely require the government to show that zoning laws are the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest.

“Do not be fooled by the alarmist tactics employed by opponents of the law,” Anders said. “The law will merely restore what has been the law of the land for decades.”

“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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