Proposed law would restore religious freedoms

Saturday, December 7, 2002

Whether it's candlelight services violating fire codes or serving communion wine to minors, some religious traditions are accepted by a community through good will rather than the law.

But legislation proposed this week by Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, could strengthen Missourians' abilities to practice their faith.

The bill was filed in advance of the 2003 legislative session that begins in January. It would require the state to have a compelling interest in regulating religious practices and institutions. Currently government has to show only a "rational basis" or reasonable argument for their interest.

The proposed bill has bipartisan support and the support of several denominations and faiths, including the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Interfaith Alliance of Greater St. Louis, Catholic Conference, Southern Baptist Convention, Presbyterian Church USA, United Church of Christ and United Methodist Church.

The legislation is modeled after a federal statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997 because it gave religion more protections than the Constitution allowed, the justices ruled.

The Supreme Court ruling indicated that state-passed religious freedom legislation could be constitutional since states can offer more protections but not less than the federal government.

The proposed legislation attempts to "redress the free exercise that has gotten out of balance," Kinder said.

Government entities have tried to infringe on religious freedoms by restricting a student's right to prayer during lunch in the school cafeteria and refusing requests made by prisoners, like not providing an exception for religious dress for Native American inmates.

"This is ordinary, healthy religious expression that has been forbidden," Kinder said. "This would strengthen every citizen's free exercise of his or her religion."

Under current Missouri law, serving communion wine to minors is illegal though no minister or church official has been prosecuted for the practice.

And candlelight services are a violation of fire codes, but "we don't hammer on it," said Mike Morgan, fire marshal with the Cape Girardeau Fire Department.

Cape Girardeau's city code has a provision that restricts open flames in buildings, but churches can seek permission for their candlelight services, Morgan said. However, fewer than 5 percent of the city's churches regularly do.

The proposed legislation restores religious freedoms that the government has been undermining for the last 20 years, Kinder said.

And while it is doubtful that a minister would ever be prosecuted for serving wine to minors during communion or a church fined for violating fire codes because it held a candlelight service, the Rev. Rudy Pulido, pastor of Southwest Baptist Church in St. Louis, says there's no reason to ever take that chance.

Pulido has written several letters to newspapers around the state, including the Southeast Missourian, highlighting this issue.

"We don't have to wonder what would happen," he said. "We can take care of this simply by passing this piece of legislation."

It seems like such an easy thing to do "and yet it is priceless," Pulido said.

Since the federal statute was declared unconstitutional, there has been a movement across the country to restore the "compelling interest" standard of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Similar legislation has been passed in Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, New Mexico, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Texas.

Kinder has supported similar legislation in the past two years. Those bills earned Senate approval but died in the Missouri House of Representatives.

335-6611, extension 126

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