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Clinton Signs Freedom of Worship Law

November 16, 1993

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Reversing a Supreme Court decision he said threatened the nation’s ″first freedom,″ President Clinton signed a bill Tuesday making it harder for government to interfere with religious practices.

A broad coalition of civil liberties and religious groups, who foresaw autopsies forced on families and cities meddling in church construction, said the law is the most important for religious freedom since the adoption of the Bill of Rights.

″We all have a shared desire here to protect perhaps the most precious of all American liberties - religious freedom,″ Clinton told supporters in a South Lawn ceremony.

Until three years ago, such action was considered unnecessary, given the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of freedom of worship. But in a 1990 ruling involving the use of a drug in an Indian religious ritual, the Supreme Court made it easier for local and federal governments to pass laws that infringe on religious beliefs.

The court upheld laws that infringe on religious freedom so long as they serve a valid government purpose and are not aimed at inhibiting religion.

The law signed by Clinton poses a stricter test - one used by courts before the 1990 ruling. That test requires that restrictive laws serve a compelling government interest in a way that poses the lightest possible burden on religious freedom.

Clinton said the law, which passed easily in Congress, holds government ″to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone’s free exercise of religion.″

Congress should rarely reverse the Supreme Court, ″but this is an issue in which that extraordinary measure was clearly called for,″ Clinton said.

″Not since the adoption of the First Amendment has the Congress and the president done so much for religious freedom,″ said Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.

″This really restores the First Amendment and is the most important religious liberty legislation in our nation’s history,″ said John Buchanan, vice president of the liberal People for the American Way.

The Senate passed the bill 97-3. The House approved it without a roll call.

There are some concerns with the law: Some animal rights advocates fear it would permit animal sacrifices and prison officials don’t want to cater to inmates who want to worship the devil.

Buchanan said that the bill was intended to allow governments to restrict animal sacrifices and that prison officials were able to comply with the new standard when it was in place before 1990.

Debbie Weiner of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said the group no longer opposes the law because a sponsor, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said publicly he did not intend to sanction animal sacrifices.

The Supreme Court case involved two men in Oregon who were denied unemployment benefits after losing their jobs because they used peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, as part of a religious ritual.

Bill supporters said the resulting legal standard had enabled local and federal governments to run roughshod over religious practices without good cause. Some examples: Autopsies were performed despite families’ religious beliefs, bureaucrats meddled in church designs and an Amish community was told to put orange reflectors on the back of their buggies.

Clinton said the founding fathers put religious freedom ″at the head of the class″ in the Bill of Rights because ″they well understood what could happen to this country, how both religion and government could be perverted if there were not some space created and some protection provided.″

Clinton, a Southern Baptist, said politicians should not be embarrassed to say they advocate a course of action based on their faith in God.

″It is high time we had an open and honest reaffirmation of the role of American citizens of faith - not so that we can agree, but so that we can argue and discourse and seek the truth and seek to heal this troubled land,″ he said.

Among the groups on hand for the ceremony were the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Civil Liberties Union, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the American Jewish Committee, the Baptist Joint Committee and the Church of Scientology International.