January 11

COMMENTARY: Bill would give religious freedom a step up to level playing field

M.D. Harmon

Soon, Maine lawmakers will have an opportunity to decide if former President Bill Clinton was right when he said, in a 1995 speech:

“Religious freedom is literally our first freedom. … We have more than 250,000 places of worship. … More people (here) believe religion is directly important to their lives than in any other advanced, industrialized country in the world. And it is not an accident. It is something that has always been part of our life. … This is a remarkable country.”

Indeed, it is, for the reasons he cited and for many others. And yet, our “first freedom” — so named partly because, as Clinton noted, it is the first one listed in the Bill of Rights, and partly because it still remains one of the freedoms most widely denied around the world — remains less than fully protected here at home.

Back in 1993, Congress passed, and Clinton signed, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It directed the courts to use a legal standard called “strict scrutiny” or the “compelling interest test” to justify government interference with religious rights.

That is, the government’s restrictions must involve “a compelling state interest” and then are put into effect “using the least restrictive means possible.”

That standard actually was created by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1963 decision, Sherbert v. Verner, when the court ruled on a case brought by a Seventh-Day Adventist against South Carolina.

In 1990, however, the court moved away from that standard, saying in Employment Division v. Smith that laws need only be “neutral toward religion” and “be generally applicable toward all persons.“

That loosened standard created many hardships, leading Congress to restore the strict scrutiny standard just three years later.

In 1997, however, in City of Boerne v. Flores, the court ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applied only to the federal government, and not to state or local governments. That led advocates for religious freedoms to create a model state law and attempt to persuade states to adopt it.

What kind of actions spurred their concerns? Among many other examples, according to the Alliance for Defending Freedom, (www.alliancedefendingfreedom.org), which is supporting the law:

• A second-grade student in New Jersey was told she could not sing a religious song in an after-school talent show.

• Five Christians were threatened with arrest for preaching on a public sidewalk in Virginia.

• A Christian university student in Missouri was threatened with having her degree withheld for refusing to lobby the state Legislature in favor of homosexual adoption.

• And a pro-life nurse at a New York hospital was forced to participate in a late-term abortion or lose her job, even though she had been promised in writing that the hospital would honor her beliefs.

So far, 17 states, including ones controlled by Democratic legislatures, such as Connecticut, Rhode Island and Illinois, have passed such statutes, and they are pending in at least two more.

A religious liberty bill in Ohio already has 40 legislative sponsors. And in Maine, “An Act to Protect Religious Freedom” (LD 1428) has been submitted by Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, and is scheduled for a public hearing at 1 p.m. Thursday in State House Room 438.

In a recent Bangor Daily News column, Burns noted, “Here in Maine, an elementary school was forced to drop the ‘Blessing of the Fleet’ portion of its annual boat launching ceremony after being threatened with a lawsuit by a Washington special interest group. In Bar Harbor, the town council recently voted to remove a memorial to World War II veterans from a public park. Why? Because the memorial consisted of lights on a Christmas tree.”

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