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United Methodist officials welcome religious freedom law


By United Methodist News Service

Staff members of two United Methodist agencies are praising a new religious freedom bill, saying it attempts to prevent various governmental bodies from interfering with some religious practices without compelling reason.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 was signed into law on Sept. 22. It had bipartisan support in Congress and was passed unanimously by voice vote in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.

The bill limits the ability of governments, including state and local bodies, to interfere with the location of religious facilities and programs or to restrict the ability of institutionalized people to practice their religions.

The law is an effort to restore some of the protections from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme court in 1997. The new act was endorsed by a coalition of more than 60 groups, including many denominations and some civil rights organizations.

"Land use is where we see the greatest problems with local governments and community groups against churches," said Mary Logan, general counsel for the denomination's administration and finance agency.

Sometimes this takes the form of neighborhood resistance manifesting itself in requests to city government to revoke permits, as in the case of Sunnyside Centenary United Methodist Church in Portland, Ore. (See UMNS #369.) Sometimes it is a matter of zoning, parking or building requirements, said Logan, who works with the churchwide General Council on Finance and Administration in Evanston, Ill.

In a Washington suburb, a Muslim group purchased about 100 acres of land for a new mosque but was denied access to sewer and water hookups. Members of the group expressed the belief that a church would not have been denied.

The new law provides protection for individuals and religious organizations by restoring the need for the government to prove a "compelling interest" to impose a burden on the practice of religion, and the government must take the "least burdensome" action in the situation, Logan notes. The necessity for a compelling interest was present in the earlier religious freedom law of 1993.

The bill prohibits excluding religious facilities from any zoned jurisdiction, treating a religious organization as less than equal to a non-religious organization, or discriminating among faiths or denominations.

Similar stipulations were written to protect the religious practices of people in institutions such as prisons or mental hospitals. In this arena also, the law requires the government to show a compelling interest, such as maintaining safety and order, for restrictions on religious practice to be acceptable.

"We support religious liberty, especially in places where people are incarcerated," said Frances Jett, an executive with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society in Washington.

The resolutions of the church affirm the work of chaplains and seek to eliminate the influences and practices of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, background, political identification, religion, age and class, she said.

"We are called to monitor government policies and programs in the field of criminal justice and to respond to them from our faith perspective," Jett said. "We have a strong stance on religious liberty.

"I think this law gives local governments pause before they think about interfering with someone's sacraments or chaplaincy visits," she declared. "This is a good bill."

Logan explained that where government regulations interfere with religious practice, the new measure does not permit what appears to be a neutral or generally applicable law to override the religious practice unless the government can show a compelling need for the regulation.

"It's going to take a while for the case law that will interpret the new law to develop," she said, indicating that as precedents are established through court decisions, the real impact of the law will become evident. The first challenge to the new law was filed in the week following President Clinton's signing of the bill.

"I hope," she added, "that the new law will truly help religious organizations that face resistance when they seek to build new churches; erect tall steeples, bells or crosses; and operate homeless shelters or other missional programs."

In the years since the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was struck down in 1997, some states have passed similar laws, Logan said. The new law will be particularly helpful in states that do not have such state laws, she said, or as an additional piece of ammunition in court fights for churches in states that do have such laws in place.

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