Statement of Charles T. Canady
Chairman, Subcommittee on the Constitution
Committee on the Judiciary
Hearing on H.R. 1691, The Religious Liberty Protection Act
Wednesday, May 12, 1999
The Religious Liberty Protection Act is a bipartisan bill that protects the free exercise of religion against burdensome state and local laws and regulations by putting them to the most rigorous legal test.
The Religious Liberty Protection Act will help people like the adult children in New York who have been prevented by health regulations from volunteering to care for their elderly parents in government-run nursing homes, despite the fact that their desired service was to fulfill their Fifth Commandment obligation to honor one's father and mother. They have been forced to choose between practicing their faith and obeying the law.
Sadly, their case is just one of a growing number of instances in which the religious freedom of Americans is not respected. I'll mention two examples which illustrate the nature of the problem. In recent years, Catholic churches have had to go to court to protect the right of prisoners to practice the sacrament of confession without fear of their confidential testimony being turned over to police. And churches in Chicago with permits pending for commercial buildings have found the land under the building reclassified as a manufacturing zone by aldermen who want to keep them out.
Traditionally, the courts protected this type of free exercise from far-reaching government intrusion, but in 1990 the Supreme Court jeopardized the religious practices of people of all faiths by ruling that only intentional violations of free exercise were of constitutional concern.
Congress responded in 1993 by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, known as RFRA, but in 1997 the Supreme Court dealt a second blow to religious liberty. This time the Court ruled that RFRA could not be applied against state or local law, because the statute exceeded Congress' constitutional authority.
It's time for Congress to once more act to protect religious liberty. H.R. 1691 addresses this serious situation by restoring the general rule that state or local officials may not substantially burden religious exercise without demonstrating a 'compelling interest' in doing so. Where a religious activity or state burden of it affects interstate commerce, the religious activity will be protected by this bill, as will the religious exercise of participants in state or local programs receiving federal financial assistance. H.R. 1691 will also protect religious gatherings and institutions against unjustified actions by zoning boards, and includes procedural help for religiously-motivated people so that they will have their day in court if they can show their religious freedom has suffered at the hands of state or local government.
Americans deserve to have their religious beliefs and practices protected. Religious freedom is too important to be trampled by insensitive bureaucracy or bad policy.