New Bill Places Local, State Civil Rights Laws in Jeopardy

May 5, 1999 12:00 am

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Wednesday, May 5, 1999

WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today warned that religious liberties legislation introduced in the House of Representatives could significantly undermine enforcement of state and local civil rights laws.

In a letter sent to the House, the ACLU emphasized its long support for religious liberty and free exercise of religion. But it said that it could no longer support the Religious Liberty Protection Act, which was reintroduced today by Rep. Charles Canady, R-FL, because its sponsors refuse to include provisions to protect hard-won civil rights laws in many states and municipalities.

“We deeply regret that we can no longer support the Religious Liberty Protection Act,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU’s Washington National Office. “But we can not ignore the severe consequences the act may have on civil rights laws and are dismayed that the bill’s sponsors steadfastly refuse to take the necessary steps to fix the potential damage.”

During hearings on the proposal last year, a landlord from California testified that her state’s fair housing law protecting people based on marital status was interfering with her religious beliefs. And recent state and federal court decisions have found that the government’s interest in protecting people against discrimination based on marital status was not compelling enough to override religious beliefs.

“In the wake of the recent court decisions, Congress should not leave the problem of the Act’s effect on civil rights laws unresolved,” said Terri Ann Schroeder, an ACLU Legislative Analyst. “The stakes are too high.”

If this proposal becomes law, the ACLU said, applicants may soon find themselves without legal protections under state and local law against landlords or employers who base their hiring or rental decisions on personally invasive questions such as:

  • Is that your spouse? Are those your children?
  • Are you straight or gay?
  • Are you pregnant?
  • Are you HIV positive?
  • What is your religion?

“We must not allow decades of hard-fought civil rights victories to be destroyed,” said Christopher Anders, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Congress must amend this legislation to stop pitting Americans seeking their civil rights against each other.”

The ACLU’s letter to Congress can be found at:

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