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ERLC-backed bills face uphill battle in Congress

WASHINGTON (BP)–Plenty of legislation of significance to the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission remains in the balance, but it appears unlikely much of it will be dealt with by Congress before it adjourns.

The Senate and House of Representatives will reconvene Labor Day week with only about a month left before adjournment. Members of both houses not only have work on yearly spending bills to complete, but they will do so amid heated election campaigns for control of Congress and the White House.

The Democrats’ efforts to gain a majority in the House and Senate, as well as the Republicans’ drive to take back the White House, may make this a less than congenial time.

“I think to actually get anything done, even the stuff that has to be done, is going to be a very, very, very difficult challenge,” said Shannon Royce, the ERLC’s legislative counsel. “Just trying to get appropriations bills completed and presented, I think, is going to be very difficult, because it’s in the interest of the minority party to stall and just try to argue about things that they want to get political votes on. So I think it’s going to be a very hard month.”

That probability is enough to make her relieved Congress already has acted on the agency’s top priority for the year, religious liberty. Just before they went into recess in late July, both houses approved the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The bill is designed to protect the religious-freedom rights of churches and other religious bodies against discriminatory land-use regulations and of people in institutions such as prisons and mental hospitals. President Clinton is expected to sign the bill into law in September.

While the legislation is narrower in focus than the Religious Liberty Protection Act that failed to receive Senate approval in this session, RLUIPA addresses the two categories where its advocates say the overwhelming majority of free-exercise-of-religion problems have arisen in recent years. It received the support of an ideologically and religiously diverse coalition.

“Obviously we were disappointed that it is not a complete, sweeping religious liberty agenda, and that’s something we would like to see happen in the next Congress, but we’re pleased that we got a bill through,” Royce said.

A critical piece of legislation she would like to see finalized to the ERLC’s satisfaction before adjournment is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The bill is designed to combat the international problem of trafficking in women and children, especially related to the sex trade. About 50,000 women and children are brought into this country each year in the sex trade, and it is estimated there are as many as 2 million sex-trafficking victims a year worldwide, according to the State Department.

The Senate approved the bill, H.R. 3244, in late July but with differences that will require a conference committee of members of both houses to negotiate a final measure. The primary difference is the Senate substitute does not include a provision requiring potential enforcement of sanctions against countries that fail to combat trafficking adequately. The House version requires the president to act in some form concerning countries found in violation.

“We would like to see the House version of the bill or close to the House version of the bill passed, and our main concern, of course, is the enforcement mechanism,” Royce said.

Here is a summary of the status of some other pieces of legislation related to ethics and religious liberty issues:

Assisted suicide — The Senate is expected to vote on the Pain Relief Promotion Act in September. The bill supports the use of federally controlled substances for the alleviation of pain, even if the risk of death increases in the process, but it clarifies such drugs may not be used intentionally to assist in a suicide. Since Oregon legalized physician-assisted suicide more than two years ago, all 47 people who have been reported as taking their lives legally have done so with federally regulated drugs. The Senate Judiciary Committee narrowly approved the legislation in April. The House passed the measure in October with a 271-156 vote.

Internet gambling — Supporters of the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act are optimistic they will gain another opportunity to pass the bill in the House before adjournment. They garnered a 245-159 favorable vote in July but fell short of the two-thirds necessary for passage under a suspension of the rules by which it was brought to the floor. The Senate adopted a similar measure last year. The House measure, H.R. 3125, is designed to update a 1961 law prohibiting betting over telephone wires and would ban most gambling on the Internet. A few conservative organizations, including Traditional Values Coalition, opposed the bill because it did not ban pari-mutuel gambling. The ERLC supported it as a first step in thwarting online wagering.

Marriage tax penalty — Republican leaders in Congress have promised to seek to overcome the president’s recent veto of the Marriage Tax Relief Reconciliation Act, H.R. 4810. Clinton vetoed the legislation in early August while Congress was in recess. Though both houses passed the measure easily, neither achieved the two-thirds majority necessary for a veto override. The legislation would raise the standard deduction for married couples to twice the deduction for people filing as singles and would expand the 15 percent tax bracket for married couples to twice as much as for single taxpayers. Under the tax code’s current provisions, about 25 million married couples pay a yearly average of about $1,400 more in taxes than they would if they lived together without being married.

Education savings accounts — The Senate voted 61-37 in March in favor of education-reform legislation that would allow tax-free savings accounts to be used for public and private schooling at the elementary and secondary levels. The House still has not acted on its version, H.R. 7. The measure would permit parents or others to place as much as $2,000 a year for a child in an account with no tax on the interest if it is used for education. This post-tax money could be used for kindergarten through 12th-grade students at private, religious or home schools, but it also could be utilized for such expenses as tutoring, uniforms or home computers for public-school students. The president already has killed the legislation three times.

Trade relations with China — The Senate appears certain to approve before adjournment permanent normal trade relations with China. The House passed PNTR for the communist giant in May by a 237-197 margin. Passage of the legislation will mean there will no longer be a yearly battle in Congress over normal trade relations, previously known as “most-favored nation” status, for the Beijing government. The ERLC opposes PNTR because of China’s pattern of persecution of Christians and other religious adherents, as well as its coercive population-control program.

Internet filtering — The Senate passed by a 95-3 vote in June a measure requiring all public schools and libraries that receive government subsidies for an Internet connection to install filtering technology on Internet-accessible computers used by minors. The Children’s Internet Protection Act, S. 97, was adopted as an amendment to the Labor/Health and Human Services appropriations bill, H.R. 4577. The House-passed version did not include the proposal.

Prosecution of obscenity — The House voted 412-4 in late July for legislation authorizing up to $5 million to prosecute obscenity cases for a Justice Department that has refused to target such pornographic material. The Illegal Pornography Prosecution Act, H.R. 4710, would authorize for the 2001 financial year money to be used by Justice’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section for staffing, travel and other expenses to prosecute obscenity cases. Members of Congress have clashed with the Justice Department about its focus on child pornography to the nearly total exclusion of obscenity.

Partial-birth abortion — Congressional backers of the Partial-birth Abortion Ban Act apparently will not send the bill to Clinton a third time. Twice before, Congress has adopted legislation that would prohibit a grisly procedure in which a nearly totally delivered baby is killed normally in the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy. Both times, the Senate fell short of overriding Clinton’s veto after the House had successfully garnered the two-thirds majority necessary. Both houses again have approved versions of a ban in the last year, but a spokeswoman for Rep. Charles Canady, R.-Fla., chief House sponsor, said supporters still do not have the votes for an override and seem resigned to hoping for a president who will sign the ban into law.

Execution of pregnant women — The House approved in a 417-0 vote in late July the Innocent Child Protection Act, which would block any United States jurisdiction from carrying out a death sentence on a woman carrying a child “at any stage of development.” The bill would extend to the states a prohibition on federal executions that was adopted by Congress in 1994. In July, Vice President Al Gore appeared to contradict the principle of protecting a child in the womb of a woman facing the death penalty. “The principle of a woman’s right to choose governs in that case,” Gore said, according to The New York Times.

Live-birth abortion — The House Judiciary Committee voted 22-1 in favor of the Born-alive Infants Protection Act in late July. The bill, H.R. 4292, would establish in federal law a baby living outside his mother’s womb is a person. It especially would impact babies who survive an abortion method known as induced-labor or live-birth abortion, which causes a woman to expel a premature baby who dies in the process or shortly after departure from the womb. The bill would not affect any abortion procedure or require medical treatment on an infant where it is not currently administered, supporters say.

Abortion drugs — The House fell short in its most recent attempt to block approval by the federal government of abortion-inducing drugs, including RU 486. An amendment to bar the Food and Drug Administration from using federal funds for the testing, development or approval of RU 486 or any other such drug was defeated 187-182 in July. The FDA is expected to approve RU 486 soon, albeit reportedly with some potential restrictions abortion rights advocates oppose, including a national registry of all doctors who prescribe the drug.

Violence against unborn children — The House voted 254-172 last September in favor of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act (H.R. 2436), which would provide legal protection for unborn children when they are harmed during the commission of a federal crime. The Senate has not acted on the bill. The measure would criminalize violence resulting in injury or death to an unborn child when it is committed during a violent federal offense against a pregnant woman. The punishment for such a crime against an unborn child would correspond to the penalty provided if the same harm were inflicted upon the mother.

Parental rights in abortion — The House approved last year the Child Custody Protection Act with a 270-159 vote, but the Senate has failed to take it up. The bill, H.R. 1218, would make it a crime for an adult to transport a minor to another state for an abortion without the parents’ involvement when the state in which the girl lives requires either parental notification or consent before such a procedure.

Foreign abortion — The House voted 221-206 in July to maintain the “Mexico City policy,” which prohibits funding for organizations that perform abortions overseas or lobby governments to liberalize their abortion policies. The vote came as part of consideration of a foreign aid bill. The Senate version of the spending bill did not include the pro-life measure.