Governments Tread Cautiously In Dealing With Religious Institutions

July 27, 2001

Political observers say states are increasingly inclined to grant exemptions to the law for religious organizations. Such exemptions range from school regulations to land-use restrictions to health requirements, such as immunizations.

  • In the last few years, more than a dozen states have passed or considered legislation to prohibit state and local laws from interfering with religious practices or beliefs -- unless the state or city can show that a compelling public interest is at stake.
  • A similar federal law -- the Religious Freedom Restoration Act -- was enacted in 1993, then struck down by the Supreme Court in 1997.
  • As a result, nine states -- including Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Rhode Island and Texas -- have enacted so-called religious protection measures.
  • And supreme courts in six other states -- among them Massachusetts and Minnesota -- have issued rulings that have the same effect.

Some experts expect that efforts by religious organizations to expand their legal exemptions will intensify in light of President Bush's proposal to increase federal funding of charitable work by religious institutions.

That proposal, passed by the House of Representatives, would allow religious organizations that receive money for charitable work to continue hiring solely within their faith. Under current law, they are allowed to impose such a hiring restriction, using private money, to maintain the character of their faith.

Civil rights groups argue that the president's proposal would amount to federally-financed discrimination in hiring.

Source: Pam Belluck, "Many Church Groups Prefer Their Rules to States'," New York Times, July 27, 2001.

 

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