Religious rights measure is pulled Bill will be revised because of concerns over its broad scope

March 21, 1998|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Sponsors of legislation designed to bolster protections for members of religious groups withdrew the proposal yesterday, saying they were unable to resolve problems with the measure in the remaining three weeks of the General Assembly session.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's Democrat, and Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, pulled the legislation, which opponents maintained would have granted rights far beyond those historically protected under the law.

In withdrawing the measure, Miller acknowledged that the bill "has possible unanticipated consequences."

The legislation -- which was sought by the state's top religious leaders -- would have established law protections in Maryland that were lost on the federal level in June when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

That law had restricted the circumstances under which government could curb religious practices.

At a hearing two weeks ago, Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, told a House committee that without the legislation, the protections afforded religious groups under the state constitution were in danger of being eroded.

Keeler, in his first appearance before a General Assembly committee, led a group of Christian and Jewish leaders from around the state in testifying for the legislation.

County officials and constitutional experts argued that unless the bill was significantly rewritten, local governments would face millions of dollars a year in lawsuits from challenges to laws affecting jails, school curriculums and land use.

They raised concerns over the scope of the bill, noting the possible danger of churches suing to be exempted from zoning laws and inmates' claiming their religious beliefs afford them privileges.

David S. Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said local officials agreed "in concept" to the proposal but were unable to resolve concerns about where the legislation might lead.

"The greatest concern was that while we were willing to support a bill that makes it easier to sue us, we didn't want to give legions of lawyers broad license to sue us for every minuscule action that government takes," Bliden said.

Local officials and religious leaders could not reach agreement on amendments to the legislation.

They agreed to work over the summer to develop a bill for next year, Bliden said.

Richard J. Dowling, executive director and lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Bishops Conference, said the withdrawal was "great disappointment."

"I think the county and municipal governments had reasonable concerns which proved too formidable to deal with in the short time left in the session," Dowling said.

Pub Date: 3/21/98

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