Jewish groups applaud passage of Calif. religious freedom act

Jewish leaders hailed the recent passage of a measure designed to protect the right of Californians to practice their religion, even when it conflicts with local laws and regulations.

"It's important to protect the religious freedom of minorities in California," said Cliff Berg, lobbyist for the Sacramento-based Jewish Public Affairs Committee, which supported the California Religious Freedom Protection Act (RFPA). The organization represents local Jewish Community Relations Councils.

Supporters say the measure, which passed Thursday of last week on an Assembly vote of 50-5, fills a void left when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar federal statute last year on the grounds that it violated states' rights. The California measure is one of many being pushed by activists through state governments.

Now the bill's fate depends on Gov. Pete Wilson, who has until Sunday to sign or veto it.

If enacted into law, RFPA would prevent local government, regulatory agencies or government institutions from unduly interfering with individuals' right to practice their religion unless authorities can prove a compelling interest, backers say.

A spokeswoman from Wilson's office acknowledged that the bill has the broad support of religious and civil liberty groups. However, some Wilson staff members raised the issue of possible security problems in schools and state prisons caused by the current bill.

"We're being very heavily lobbied on both sides of the bill," said Rosalie Zallis, Wilson's spokeswoman and liaison with the Jewish community. The governor is concerned with "what his aides are concerned about," she said, "which is public safety issues."

David Wasko of the American Jewish Congress said the bill had already been amended in the state Senate to address the concerns of prison officials, and that judges ruling on the federal statute had thrown out lawsuits deemed frivolous that were filed by prisoners.

"We're just looking at them having to serve prisoners kosher food if they're Jewish," he stated. "The Department of Corrections is looking for an outright exemption. Frankly, I hope religious liberty is not undermined seriously."

However, Zallis said not all of the potential security problems revolve around prison issues.

"Under this legislation, Sikhs who carry daggers as part of their religious uniforms could carry their daggers into schools," she said.