States Pass New Protections

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In June 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the four-year-old federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), alarming many in the broad-based religious community that had supported the legislation (CT, Aug. 11, 1997, p. 48). The Supreme Court ruled that Congress overstepped its constitutional authority by trying to expand the definition of religious freedom.

While no new federal legislation has been adopted to limit government regulation of religious expression, at least a dozen states have considered implementing similar provisions. The latest measure passed in Illinois, where both legislative chambers met in special sessions. Lawmakers voted to override Gov. James Edgar's amendment to the bill, in which he had tried to limit the scope of a state version of RFRA. The House overrode the amendment 110 to 3 on November 17 and the Senate followed 55 to 0 on December 2.

The final bill declares that when a state or local jurisdiction acts in a way that would curb free exercise of religion, the burden falls on the government to prove the curb is necessary. Edgar had inserted a clause exempting prison inmates from the protections.

PRISONER EXEMPTION JUSTIFIED?

Opponents of the original Illinois bill, dubbed a "clean" RFRA because it contained no exemptions, included not only corrections officials but groups such as the 36-member Illinois Municipal League and the Northwest Municipal Conference. Local governments raised concerns about the impact of RFRA on zoning (CT, Oct. 26, 1998, p. 23) and employment issues. Attorneys for the city of Chicago argued the bill would make employment policies virtually unenforceable as long as a worker identifies a religious basis for his refusal to comply with an ...

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