Restoring Religious Liberty

When our Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment, they had no idea that in 1990 the Supreme Court would turn it into a dead letter. But that's exactly what happened. On the basis of a single disastrous decision, Jewish students have been denied time off from public school to observe religious holidays. Churches are being zoned out of communities. The Boy Scouts were ordered to admit members who are atheists. And Mother Teresa was forced to close a shelter for the homeless because it could not afford a government-required elevator. Not here in America, you say. But unfortunately, yes: Over the past three years, the courts have been consistently making decisions hostile to religious rights. The only measure that can turn things around is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, currently before the U.S. Senate. The problem began with a court case, Employment Division v. Smith, dealing with the use of peyote in Native American religious ceremonies. The issue was whether a state law against drug use represented a "compelling state interest" that outweighed the freedom of Native Americans to engage in a religious ritual. Astonishingly, the Court ignored that question altogether. Instead, it took this chance to throw out the "compelling state interest" standard that had governed such cases for 30 years. Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, ruled that states no longer have to establish a compelling interest to restrict religious liberty; they merely have to prove that a law is generally applicable and does not single out religion. Practically speaking, the ruling means states no longer have to accommodate religion in any way. After all, few laws are ever written to single out religion for discrimination. The laws that spell trouble are just the "generally applicable" ones Justice Scalia wrote about. For example, general laws against sexual discrimination can be used to force churches to ordain women. Civil rights laws that included homosexuals could be used to force churches to hire gay youth workers. Under abortion laws, religiously affiliated hospitals could be ordered to perform abortions. Religious believers might not be allowed an exemption from working on the Sabbath. None of these laws targets religion specifically. So under Smith, religious believers would have no grounds to claim an exemption. In essence, the First Amendment has become a dead letter. But it can be brought back to life by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). If passed, the Act would once again require government to demonstrate a compelling state interest in order to restrict religious practice. RFRA was passed unanimously in the House earlier this month. It has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the full Senate will vote on it in the next few weeks. So call your senators and urge them to support the RFRA. Some groups are trying to tack on amendments to exclude legal protection of religious exercise by school children and prison inmates—in essence turning them into second-class citizens. Tell your senators you want no amendments, no second-class citizens. Call us today at "BreakPoint," and we'll send you a transcript of this program along with a fact sheet to use when you contact your senators. Urge them to vote yes on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act . . . to restore the First Amendment.


Chuck Colson



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