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November 12, 1993 - Image 22

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1993-11-12

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J

he Religious Freedom
Restoration Act — legis-
lation supported by Jew-
ish groups of widely
varying ideologies — cleared its
last major hurdle by winning
passage in the Senate last
week. The bill requires the gov-
ernment to show a compelling
interest prior to instituting any
restrictions on religious prac-
tices.
The measure passed the
House by unanimous vote in
May. All that remains is House
approval of several technical
changes made by the Senate.
No problems are expected, and
some Jewish activists expect
that a final bill could be on the
president's desk as early as this
weekend.
Jewish groups were quick to
claim their portion of credit for
passage of the important mea-
sure. And much of that credit
was well deserved.
The Union of American He-
brew Congregations, Agudath
Israel of America, the American
Jewish Congress, the Union of
Orthodox Jewish Congregations
and the American Jewish Com-
mittee all played significant
roles in the grueling two-year
legislative battle, which was
complicated by Roman Catholic
claims that the bill would en-
courage abortion.
Jewish activists praised the
active role played by Maryland
Atty. Gen. Joe Curran and his
New York counterpart, Robert
Abrams, who helped head off a
potentially crippling amend-
ment backed by many of their
colleagues that would have ex-
empted prisons from the reli-
gious liberties provisions. The
exemption was opposed by Jew-
ish groups, which cited the
problems faced by observant
prisoners as one reason the law
was needed.
There was also praise for ad-
ministration officials.
"The religious community
owes a tremendous debt of grat-
itude to Atty. Gen. (Janet)
Reno," said Aron Raskas, a Bal-
timore lawyer and activist with
the Orthodox Union.
Mr. Raskas referred to a let-
ter from Ms. Reno dismissing
the argument by many attor-
neys general that the religious
freedom bill would open the
door to extravagant demands
by prison inmates.
Last week's Senate action
capped a legislative battle that
began in 1991, when Jewish
and Protestant activists joined

forces with groups like the
American Civil Liberties Union
to seek a legislative remedy for
the High Court decision in
Smith v. Employment Division
of Oregon, the so-called peyote
case.
Before "Smith," a state had
to demonstrate a compelling
state interest when it sought to
limit a religious practice. In a
surprisingly broad decision, the
High Court removed that re-
quirement in the controversial
case.
That decision has already
been cited in dozens of subse-
quent lower court decisions on
issues like unnecessary autop-
sies.
Although no laws restricting
Jewish observance have been
passed as a result, the decision
could have legalized measures
limiting ritual slaughter, the
use of wine in religious obser-
vance and "even the practice of
circumcision," according to Rep.
Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a
principle sponsor.
The Senate vote represented
a "restoration of a basic right,"
said Nathan Lewin, a top
Washington constitutional
lawyer and advocate for Jewish
causes. "What it means is that

"It is an auspicious
day for the Jewish
community and for
all religious
minorities."

the government will once again
have to give a good reason be-
fore limiting a religious prac-
tice."
And that, he said, is impor-
tant for Jews of every level of
observance.
"It is an auspicious day for
the Jewish community and for
all religious minorities," said
Abba Cohen, Washington rep-
resentative for Agudath Israel
of America. Orthodox groups
like Agudath, he said, will now
turn their attention to a "reli-
gious accommodations" mea-
sure to be introduced soon by
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
That bill would make it easier
for employees whose religious
observances may occasionally
require special accommodations
by their employers. ❑

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