Most House Jews vote against religious liberty act

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WASHINGTON — There have been few recent issues on which the organized Jewish community has been so firmly unified as the need to protect religious freedom in America.

Every major Jewish organization, joining together with a broad coalition of religious and civil liberties groups, had thrown its support behind legislation known as the Religious Liberty Protection Act, which sailed through the House of Representatives last week on a 306-118 vote.

Which is why it came as a surprise when the majority of Jewish lawmakers voted against it.

Those opposing the measure, including some Jewish lawmakers who initially supported it, made clear that they agreed with the principle of the bill — namely, that people must be allowed to practice their religion free from government intrusion.

But support among many Democrats broke down amid a dispute over whether religious liberty or civil rights laws should take precedence when the two conflict.

The measure approved by the House would prevent state and local governments from placing a "substantial burden" on an individual's free exercise of religion unless officials make a compelling case for doing so — and only then through the "least restrictive means."

The legislation seeks to remedy what supporters said were numerous cases in which laws have needlessly interfered with religious practices.

Supporters have pointed, among other things, to city ordinances that have prevented synagogues and other houses of worship from expanding, policies that prohibit Jewish children from wearing yarmulkes in schools and laws that conflict with the Orthodox prohibition against autopsies and the practice of giving sacramental wine to minors.

The legislation was crafted following a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down certain protections for religious practice. The justices ruled that Congress overstepped its bounds in 1993 when it passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a similar law that made it harder for government to interfere with religious practice — and declared the law unconstitutional.

The new bill, known as the RLPA, relies on three technical powers of Congress — its ability to regulate spending, interstate commerce and the 14th Amendment's protection of citizenship rights — to extend new protections to religious freedom.

One of the bill's chief proponents, Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.), said it is "designed to ensure that the free exercise of religion is not trampled on by the insensitive and heedless actions of the government."

Once thought to be relatively noncontroversial, the measure has come under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union and gay rights groups. They have said the measure would make it easier to discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation or marital status.

Opponents worry that the proposed legislation could be used to justify violations of state or local anti-discrimination laws. They point to recent court decisions they say have opened the door to such claims.

Under the proposed law, they argue, landlords and employers in states and cities with laws prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals could invoke their religious principles as a defense for refusing to rent to or hire gays and lesbians.

Of the 23 Jewish members of the House, 15 voted against the bill, and one did not vote. Even an original sponsor of the bill, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), voted against it after an amendment he authored failed by a vote of 190-234.

Marc Stern, a lawyer with the American Jewish Congress who helped draft the bill, said he disagreed that the legislation would create conflict with civil rights laws, particularly because it would be left to judges to decide the merits of individual cases.