The House yesterday overwhelmingly passed a bill designed to protect religious practices from government interference, affirming the right to exercise faith even in cases where it might conflict with state or local laws.
Spurred by gripping tales of prisoners barred from receiving Holy Communion, students disciplined for wearing yarmulkes in school and houses of worship frozen out of residential neighborhoods by zoning laws, the Republican-controlled House passed the Religious Liberty Protection Act by 306 to 118. The bill is a slightly narrower version of a law the Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional in 1997.
Several civil rights groups opposed the bill, warning it could be used to undermine other anti-discrimination laws, but the Senate is likely to pass some version of the legislation as well, and the Clinton administration signaled its "strong support" in a statement.
Supporters of the bill -- including a broad coalition of religious groups ranging from the National Sikh Center to the Peyote Way Church of God to the Campus Crusade for Christ -- called it a much-needed correction to government infringements on religious freedom. The vote was a particularly sweet victory for Christian conservatives, a landmark in their 10-year struggle to convince Americans that they are an embattled minority in need of additional legal protection.
But Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a coauthor of the bill, withdrew his support after failing to pass an amendment ensuring that existing civil rights laws would not be affected. Nadler expressed concern that the bill could empower landlords, for example, to use their religious beliefs to refuse to rent to homosexuals, single mothers or unmarried couples. The bill's supporters said that was not the intention, but opposed Nadler's amendment anyway, saying it would have created an impression that religious rights are second-class rights.
"This bill is supposed to be a shield to protect rights, but some people want to use it as a sword to attack rights," Nadler said. "Religious liberty is very dear to my heart, but I can't support this bill anymore."
In the end, though, the bill was propelled by a fierce lobbying effort led by conservative Christian groups such as the Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition, with help from a wide array of apolitical religious organizations and even some liberal groups such as People for the American Way and Americans for Democratic Action.
The bill would make it much harder for state and local officials to take actions that inconvenience people of faith, requiring them to demonstrate that the actions serve a "compelling" public interest and that they have no less restrictive means to achieve it. To its supporters, this legislation is a fix desperately needed to uphold the original vision of the nation's founders, many of whom came to America to escape religious intolerance.
"This is a great day for religious liberty in America," said Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.), the bill's chief sponsor. "In recent years, we've seen less and less protection for the free exercise of religion. In this country, beliefs have been trampled on every day."
The bill's supporters dramatized their arguments with a long list of horror stories describing government intrusions on religious expression: Muslim firefighters forced to shave beards, Hmong corpses submitted for autopsies even though their relatives believed it would condemn their spirits, Roman Catholic priests prohibited from serving communion wine to minors.
Most of all, they complained about zoning disputes, which they claim are often used to keep religious institutions out of residential neighborhoods. In Cheltanham Township, Pa., officials rejected a synagogue's construction plans because of insufficient space for parking, even though Orthodox Jews do not drive on the Sabbath. The synagogue then offered to build a parking lot anyway, but officials turned them down again, saying it would create traffic jams.
Such conflicts date to 1990, when the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution's "free exercise" clause does not preclude laws that burden religious practices -- as long as they serve a "rational" public interest, and are not designed specifically to squelch religion. The "compelling" interest requirement in the current bill would set a much higher legal standard.
President Clinton signed a similar bill into law in 1993, but the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Congress had exceeded its constitutional authority in passing it. The authors of the current bill limited its scope to interstate commerce, federally funded programs and blatantly discriminatory land use regulations in an effort to pass constitutional muster.
But the debate on the House floor dwelt on cultural and political issues, not constitutional ones. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) attacked Nadler's amendment protecting existing civil rights, arguing that "nontraditional" groups now enjoy more protections than religious institutions. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) complained that opponents of the amendment were engaging in an underhanded attack on gays. Ultimately, the amendment failed, 234 to 190, largely along party lines.
"It's unconscionable that the House passed this bill without protecting civil rights," said David M. Smith of the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay and lesbian political organization.
The bill's passage is the culmination of a major shift among Christian activists, who over the past decade have adopted the political strategies of the civil rights movement. Once portraying themselves as the dominant cultural force in a God-fearing America, Christian conservatives have redefined themselves as a persecuted splinter group.
"The bill appeals to the notion that we are a minority with a target printed on our chest," said Justin Watson, a professor at Florida State University who has written a book on the Christian right's latest incarnation. "It's a kind of me-tooism, useful in an era of appeals to victimization."
The rhetorical shift crystallized with Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition from 1989 to 1997. Without abandoning the triumphalism of the Moral Majority, Reed added the cry of the oppressed. He even started a monthly publication, Religious Rights Watch, dedicated to documenting discrimination against Christians.
Until the passage of this latest bill, legal attempts to rectify the alleged persecution of Christians had faltered, but politically and culturally, the strategy soared.
"It fit into the American ideology that everyone deserves to have rights," said James Guth, a professor at Furman University who studies the religious right. "If you can persuade people your rights are abused, you're on the road to convincing them they ought to protect you."
Yesterday's vote was the ultimate triumph of that strategy, wrapping evangelical Christians with the Amish, the Buddhists, the Scientologists and other minority faiths. Even Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State supported the bill, because he appreciated its protections for groups that he believes are truly endangered. But to Lynn, the Christians-as-martyrs line rings a bit tinny.
"For them to say they are some kind of beleaguered group is truly ridiculous," Lynn said. "Look at the political clout the religious right has, notwithstanding their setbacks."