State legislature passes religious freedom bill

Friday, May 16, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- State and local governments would have to meet the highest legal standard to enforce laws and regulations that impinge on the free exercise of religion under a bill lawmakers sent to the governor on Thursday.

The bill, dubbed the Religion Freedom Restoration Act, would require demonstration of a "compelling state interest" for restrictions affecting religion to be valid. A "rational basis" is all that is needed to be proved under current law.

Religious groups of various faiths have pushed for the bill, which is sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau. Kinder said it was needed because of shifting court interpretations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

"We are restoring some reason and balance to the law," Kinder said. "This will enlarge the sphere of freedom to exercise religious liberty."

The Senate endorsed the measure 31-0. The House of Representatives approved it 122-10 on Wednesday. Gov. Bob Holden's signature is required for it to become law.

The bill would not bar general laws without discriminatory intent that apply to all segments of society. So it couldn't be invoked as a defense for injuring another person, carrying an illegal weapon, failure to provide child support or not obtaining medical treatment for a child with a potentially fatal condition.

Under the original Senate version, government would have had to undertake the least restrictive method of achieving its goal once it has demonstrated a compelling interest.

The House position, which remains in the final bill, mandates only that a law is not unduly restrictive under the circumstances.

State Rep. Richard Byrd, R-Kirkwood, said the change would help Missouri avoid some of the problems encountered in other states with similar laws.

"'Least restrictive' is such a tight legal term that if there is a wholly unreasonable and almost impossible method of achieving the compelling state interest, it would have to be applied," said Byrd, the bill's House handler.

Senate Minority Floor Leader Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, said the change alleviated concerns he had with the original language.

"It is a less restrictive test but a more practical test for these kind of issues," Jacob said.

The U.S. Supreme Court first established the rational basis test for the Establishment Clause in 1879. Liberal courts in the 1960s and 1970s imposed the more stringent compelling state interest threshold.

Starting in the 1980s, however, conservative courts began returning to the lower standard.

The court came full circle in a 1990 case involving two Indians who claimed the state wrongly denied them unemployment benefits after they were fired for smoking peyote, a practice they considered essential to their religion.

Congress responded by passing a federal law upon which Kinder's bill is modeled. However, the Supreme Court overturned that action in 1997, saying the legislative branch had no authority to interpret the Constitution, a power belonging solely to the judiciary.

Byrd said Missouri's bill doesn't attempt to dictate constitutional interpretation to the courts but sets boundaries for regulations enacted by political subdivisions of the state, an area clearly within the legislature's power. Courts have upheld similar laws in other states.

The bill is SB 12.

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