Religious leaders back rights bill Foes fear dangers in new protections

March 07, 1998|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Maryland's top religious leaders united in force yesterday to support a "religious freedom" bill before the General Assembly that opponents maintain would go far beyond rights historically protected under the law.

The legislation would establish in Maryland law religious protections that were lost on the federal level in June when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That law restricted the circumstances under which government could curb religious practices.

"We do not come to you in search of special advantage," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, in his first appearance before a legislative committee. "We do not seek to expand the religious freedom guarantee of the Maryland Constitution."

Keeler said that without the legislation, the protections afforded religious groups under the state constitution "are undefended against significant erosion."

Among those joining Keeler were Rabbi Herman N. Neuberger, president of the New Israel Rabbinical College, the Rev. Herbert D. Valentine, executive of the Presbytery of Baltimore, and the Rev. Charles W. Gilchrist, a former Montgomery County executive who represented the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

Marci A. Hamilton, a constitutional scholar and law professor who spoke against the bill, said the legislation goes far beyond earlier legal standards and would have ramifications that could not be envisioned.

"This is a hornet's nest," said Hamilton, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, who successfully argued the case against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act before the Supreme Court.

'Compelling interest'

Hamilton said that the federal law was interpreted to permit such things as Sikh children in California carrying ceremonial 7-inch knives to school and Satanists in prison being given matches for use in rituals.

At the heart of the legislation is a legal standard that says government must have a "compelling interest" to restrict a person's observance of religion and even then must use only the "least restrictive means" possible.

The "compelling governmental interest" standard was established in a 1963 federal court case. That was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1990, which said states could prohibit the ritual use by Native Americans of the drug peyote if the ban extended to everyone.

In response, Congress attempted to reinstate the "compelling government interest" standard by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, which the Supreme Court overturned last year.

Now the battle has moved to state legislatures. Two New England states have enacted bills similar to the overturned federal law, but opponents said the Maryland measure would go far beyond those.

Questions by officials

"You can't imagine the scope," Hamilton told the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee. "If you pass this in the current [form], you're in for trouble."

The bill is sponsored by Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, and has the support, at least ostensibly, of many local officials.

However, many of the local officials argued yesterday that unless the bill was significantly rewritten, they would inevitably face millions of dollars a year in lawsuits from challenges to laws

TC affecting prisons and jails, school curriculums and land use.

David S. Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, told the committee that local governments could not support the legislation without amendments.

Bliden, who testified along with county attorneys from Baltimore and Howard counties and the Annapolis city attorney, said his group was in favor of the legislation "in concept."

Regardless of which standard is accepted, he said, "we're going to be sued more, no question about it."

Protection of children

Bobbi Seabolt, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, testified against the proposal, calling it the "Unintended Consequences Bill of 1998."

Seabolt's concerns were that protections for children now in the law would be eliminated. She noted as examples the state's power to require such treatment as blood transfusions when a child's life was in danger and immunizations regardless of the religious beliefs of the parents.

Under the legislation as written, parents would have the ability to withhold such treatment, she said.

Other local officials raised concerns over the scope of the bill, noting the risk of churches' suing to be exempted from zoning and land use laws and inmates claiming that their religious beliefs afford them rights and privileges, some of which pose security risks.

Eric B. Schwartz, deputy director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, asked that all school systems be exempted from the bill because of the unknown consequences for curriculum and school regulations.

Pub Date: 3/07/98

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