Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Charedi World

16 Tammuz 5760 - July 19, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Scaled-down Religious Liberty Bill Before Congress

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

"This is an imperfect world, and Washington often stands out in the area of imperfection. . . . Half a loaf is better than none." That is how Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel of America's Washington Office director and counsel, explained the thinking behind a new religious liberty bill introduced last week in both the United States House of Representatives and Senate.

The bill, the "Religious Land-Use and Institutionalized Persons Act", would enhance the rights of religious institutions seeking to avoid restrictive provisions of local zoning or landmarking ordinances; as well as protect the religious freedom of state prisoners and other persons who reside in government-operated institutions.

"These are areas where there is broad recognition of the need for greater legal protection of religious rights," said Mr. Cohen, "and it would be a meaningful step forward were Congress to pass this legislation."

Supporters believe that they have the votes to pass the bill, but their chief enemy is time, with only about six weeks left to have the bill passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives and be signed by President Clinton.

The bill represents a scaled-down version of an earlier law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997 declared unconstitutional on the grounds that Congress had exceeded its constitutional authority to regulate state and local legislation. The proposed new bill, which Mr. Cohen played a role in drafting, is carefully crafted to avoid similar problems.

UNder the proposed legislation, state and local governments will be prohibited from blocking the establishment of a place of worship unless there is a "compelling reason" to do so, and then to do so by the "least restrictive means."

A number of zoning battles have emerged over Orthodox places of worship over recent years, including a Rockland County village which established zoning laws that prevented -- and, some charged, were engineered to prevent -- the use of private homes as synagogues. In another case that attracted national attention, a group of Hancock Park, California Orthodox Jews, including elderly and disabled individuals unable to walk to the closest synagogue on the Sabbath, were prevented by local zoning laws from meeting to pray in a private home. The bill would provide protection against such restrictive applications of land use regulations. In some cases, for example, Orthodox congregations had to find room for a required amount of parking spaces even though the congregants walk to the synagogue on Shabbos for services. Another tactic was requiring extensive ecological surveys.

The bill would further apply the "compelling reason/least restrictive means" standard in evaluating governmental efforts to restrict religious practice in institutional settings. Religiously observant Jews in state prisons, for example, would have greater protection for kosher dietary needs and Sabbath and holiday observance.

Much as Agudath Israel welcomes the new bill and will work hard toward its enactment, the group's preference would have been a bill offering broader religious protection to religious citizens -- like the original Religious Freedom Restoration Act or a later proposal, the Religious Liberty Protection Act, which passed through the House last year but fell prey to political squabbling over the contentious issue of religious entities and anti-discrimination laws. But, Mr. Cohen notes, "For now, the new bill seems to be the only approach that stands a serious chance of getting enacted, and there is no question that its passage will make a substantial difference in the lives of religious Americans, including Orthodox Jews."

The earlier version of the legislation was much broader, providing that Jewish children be allowed to wear yarmulkes in school, that minors can drink wine for religious purposes and providing extensive protection for Jewish sensitivities on the issue of autopsies.

However, opponents of the earlier law said that the way it was written could allow for abuses such as protecting landlords who refuse to rent to certain prospective tenants citing religious principles as their reason, or employers not hiring people and citing religious grounds. Thus that version did not pass. With its narrower focus on just land use zoning and prisoners, the new proposal is not vulnerable to the criticism that defeated last year's version.

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