Breakthrough Religious Freedom Bill Hailed By Religious and Civil Rights Groups

July 13, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — Landmark bipartisan legislation to protect religious freedom from unfair government restrictions introduced today in the Senate was applauded by an unusual collection of religious and advocacy groups – including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Family Research Council and the Baptist Joint Committee – that are often ideological foes.

“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.”

Introduced by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Ted Kennedy (D-MA), the bill has such broad support that it will likely be voted on by the full Senate by the end of the month. Companion legislation will be introduced today in the House by 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 Baptist Joint Committee, the Christian Legal Society, the American Jewish Congress, and groups representing Christian denominations from 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 Hatch-Kennedy religious freedom 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 to last year’s passage of a religious liberty bill in 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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