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House committee approves bill protecting religious liberty

WASHINGTON (BP)–Legislation intended to strengthen protection for religious freedom received approval June 23 from a House of Representatives committee.
The House Judiciary Committee passed by a voice vote the Religious Liberty Protection Act. The panel defeated an amendment that would have provided an exception for civil rights, a congressional staff member said. Some organizations and members of Congress fear courts will favor religious exercise over laws banning discrimination based on such things as “sexual orientation,” which includes homosexuality.
A diverse coalition — including the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Family Research Council and People for the American Way — backs RLPA. The coalition opposes any exemptions to the law.
The bill, H.R. 1691, is a secondary attempt to alleviate problems for religious liberty brought on by a high court opinion. It is a response to a 1997 Supreme Court ruling largely overturning the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was a congressional response to a 1990 decision by the justices.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was enacted in 1993 in order to remedy the 1990 Employment Division v. Smith opinion, in which the Supreme Court rejected a previous requirement the government must show it has a “compelling interest” in restricting religious expression and its action is the “least restrictive means” in furthering that interest. Instead, the high court said the government only must show a law is neutral toward religion. RFRA restored the “compelling interest/least restrictive” test, but the justices rejected the law in the City of Boerne v. Flores decision, ruling Congress exceeded its authority.
While more limited in scope than RFRA, the Religious Liberty Protection Act relies on three congressional powers — the spending clause, the interstate commerce clause and the 14th Amendment — to restore the “compelling interest/least restrictive means” test where applicable.
Among organizations, opposition to RLPA exists on the left and right.
On the left, the American Civil Liberties Union, which backed RLPA in the last Congress, has joined with the country’s two largest homosexual rights organizations to oppose RLPA unless it includes an amendment protecting civil rights laws. The ACLU, plus the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, want to carve out an exemption for local and state laws protecting “sexual orientation” and HIV/AIDS, as well as other categories.
On the right, the Home School Legal Defense Association leads a group against the bill because of its use of the commerce clause. That coalition contends only those religious organizations large enough to affect interstate commerce would be able to seek RLPA’s protection. It also argues people of faith would be forced to challenge government restrictions of religious exercise on the basis of commercial activity, not their beliefs.
The pro-RLPA coalition also includes the Christian Legal Society, National Council of Churches, National Association of Evangelicals, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Christian Coalition, American Jewish Congress and Focus on the Family.
Last year, the Constitution Subcommittee approved RLPA but only after removing the commerce clause provision. The bill moved no further.

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