Although the Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA) was created to withstand a constitutional challenge such as the one that knocked down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) last year, a widening rift between social conservatives may ensure the bill never makes it onto the law books.

At issue is RLPA's use of the government's commerce and spending powers to protect religious freedom (CT, Aug. 10, 1998, p. 15).

"[It is] both constitutionally dangerous and religiously offensive to me to treat the worship of God as a commercial transaction," says Mike Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), a strong critic of RLPA. Farris calls religious conservatives' support of the bill "hypocrisy," because he believes the bill promotes an expanded government. "To me, it's an end-justifies-the-means philosophy at its worst," he says.

Under pressure from HSLDA and its supporters, Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.), House leader of the stalled bill, withdrew the inclusion of interstate commerce provisions in August in an attempt to broaden congressional support. He says he was disappointed to see the provision removed, because it expanded the bill's scope. The Senate version maintains the original wording.

The House version still relies on congressional spending powers, which are used in other legislation to protect religious freedom. The Equal Access Act of 1984 protects student religious groups because public schools receive federal funds.

Steve McFarland, director of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom, says the bill has been "crippled" by Farris's efforts: "The far Right has done a big favor for the far Left. It's a real irony." The homosexual lobby, which is concerned about religious exemptions to antidiscrimination laws, will be the largest beneficiary, McFarland says.

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