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Religious-Freedom Bill on Fast Track in Congress

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WASHINGTON--A bill that would reverse a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision by making it more difficult for government to interfere with a person's free exercise of religion is on a fast track in Congress, with wide support from both liberal and conservative groups.

The issue has been of interest to religious educators, who fear that the decision could lead to greater governmental control over church-affiliated schools and home-schooling. Church and civil-liberties groups have also said the ruling could result in burdens on the rights of public school students from religious minorities.

But an official of the National School Boards Association said the group is concerned that the proposed "religious-freedom restoration act'' is too broadly worded and would go beyond reversing the effects of the High Court's ruling.

That decision, in Employment Division v. Smith, held that a "neutral, generally applicable law'' that serves a valid state purpose can impose a burden on a religious practice without violating the First Amendment's guarantee of the free exercise of religion.

The ruling--which said the religious use of the drug peyote was not exempt from anti-drug laws--upset many religious groups because it removed a stricter legal standard that said laws restricting religion had to serve a "compelling governmental interest.'' The bill in Congress would restore the stricter standard.

Burton Carney, the state legislative coordinator for the Association of Christian Schools International, said last week that more than 50 court cases nationwide have relied on the Smith decision to rule against religious practices.

"We feel it is just a matter of time before it will affect one of our member schools,'' he said.

Rep. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., a lead sponsor of the bill, said earlier this year that the decision could "jeopardize ... the right of public school students to take off for religious holidays'' or "the right of students to wear religious garments like yarmulkes or not wear clothing such as gym uniforms they believe are immodest.''

Suits Against Districts Feared

The N.S.B.A., however, has expressed the opposite concern: that the proposed law would make it easier for students and parents to raise religious objections to public school curricula or other programs.

"The problem is [the bill] is just too broad,'' Gwendolyn H. Gregory, the deputy general counsel of the N.S.B.A., said late last month. "Instead of crafting a bill to [reverse Smith], they have a very broad bill. They are trying to codify the free-exercise clause.''

She pointed out that many religiously based groups have challenged public school textbooks and curricula by arguing that the materials infringe on their free exercise of religion. The religious-freedom bill could bolster the groups' arguments in court, Ms. Gregory said.

"We have been sued all over the lot for a number of years in the curriculum area,'' Ms. Gregory said. "If nothing else, we are going to spend money on attorneys fees' just fighting'' cases stemming from the bill.

Bipartisan Support

The bill was introduced in the last Congress but failed to pass after concerns arose about whether it might be used to bolster abortion rights. That concern has been resolved, and the bill now has strong bipartisan support in both houses of Congress and among a wide array of private groups. President Clinton has also indicated his support.

The House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the bill last month, but as of last week it had not been taken up by the full House.

The Senate version of the bill is being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Some supporters of the bill said last week that they were surprised to learn of the N.S.B.A.'s criticism. In the last Congress, the association agreed not to fight the bill after its backers made some minor changes to allay the N.S.B.A.'s concerns.

"There were some changes made at [the N.S.B.A.'s] request,'' said Michael P. Farris, the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, who helped draft the bill.

When the bill was reintroduced last month, however, some officials of the N.S.B.A. were apparently concerned over remarks by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., a sponsor.

"As a result of the Smith decision, it has been suggested that ... school boards could force children to attend sex-education classes contrary to their faith,'' Senator Kennedy said on the Senate floor on March 11.

"I know they had a major concern over Kennedy's introduction of the bill,'' said Eliot Mincberg, the legal director of People for the American Way, another organization backing the bill. "The act would not say per se that a student could be excused from a sex-education class with which they had a religious conflict. It would be subject to the old [compelling-government-interest] test.''

Mr. Mincberg said last week that he had been assured by a top N.S.B.A. official that the association is not planning to actively oppose the bill.

N.S.B.A. officials were returning from their convention late last week and were not available for comment.

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