Mr. Lanting, a member of South Holland Protestant Reformed Church, is a practicing attorney.
In an unusual showing of solidarity, a large and diverse group of liberal and conservative religious groups have formed a rare coalition to support and sponsor a new federal statute calculated to enhance religious freedom in this country. Angered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in the notorious case of Employment Division v. Smith, the coalition has convinced 104 U.S. Representatives to co-sponsor a new bill in Congress dubbed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (‘RFRA”).
The RFRA was drafted to act as a legislative antidote to the Court’s First Amendment decision in Smith, which alarmed religious leaders nationwide. The Smith case involved two Indians who were fired from their counseling jobs after it was discovered they had used peyote, a stimulant drug derived from cactus plants. They were then also denied unemployment compensation because their unemployment resulted from the use of an illegal drug. They appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that their use of peyote was a religious practice and sanctioned as a “sacrament” by their Native American Church.
The Court rejected their argument that the termination of their employment and state’s subsequent denial of unemployment benefits violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment (Congress shall pass no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of Religion] . …) Arguably overturning 30 years of established precedent, the Court surprisingly held that the Free Exercise Clause does not exempt anyone from a “facially-neutral” law even if it directly interferes with one’s religious practice (such as peyote use). Previously, a religious objector could obtain an exemption unless the state could show that its law was the “least restrictive means? to serve a “compelling government interest.”
The loss of this “strict scrutiny” standard for carving out religious exceptions to laws that intrude upon religious activities alarmed many. The RFRA was drafted to restore the “strict scrutiny” standard: government cannot infringe on a person’s free exercise of religion unless it can demonstrate (1) that the government has a “compelling interest” in doing so, and (2) that it is taking the “least restrictive means” possible to further that compelling interest.
Most recently, however, some members of the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion have been withdrawing their support for the RFRA bill because of concern that the language of the bill may backfire in the areas of abortion, taxation, and parochiaid. For example, some supporters of the original bill suspect that some feminists may argue that their right to an unrestricted abortion is a “religious belief” which the state may not regulate.
Similar bills are being prepared for Senate sponsors and within a few months there maybe a showdown on Capital Hill over a final version of a RFRA. This important piece of federal litigation deserves special attention from those concerned about church/state relationships and religious liberties in the 90s.
Abortionists are concerned that the Supreme Court will jettison Roe v. Wade this summer, again allowing states to establish their own guidelines and restrictions on abortion.
Accordingly, the forces that support a woman’s right to abort her child have recently placed before Congress a bill that will essentially codify the Roe v. Wade decision. The proponents of this pro-abortion federal law have named it the Freedom of Choice Act (“FCA”).
Among other things, the proposed FCA states that “a state may not restrict the right of a woman to choose to terminate a pregnancy . . . before fetal viability . . . .” The sponsors desire to have this bill ready for a floor vote in the House as soon as the Supreme Court announces its ruling in the Pennsylvania abortion case this summer.
President Bush recently told an evangelical audience in Illinois that he will veto the measure if it is passed by Congress. The U.S. Attorney General Flanigan is also advising that the bill be rejected.
Abortionists, however, are confident that an unpopular Supreme Court decision in an election year will galvanize Congress to pass such a measure. Kate Michelmann, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, was recently quoted: “No member of Congress now can dance or dodge away and around this issue. Each of them is going to be accountable.”
Some Constitutional scholars are dubious, however, whether Congress can create a right that the Supreme Court may rule is not found in the Constitution. In any event, the progress of this bill in Congress merits careful observation by those concerned about abortion in this country.
The 1991 edition of “Statistical Abstract of the United States,” published by the federal government, was recently released. It contains some interesting data regarding non-public schools. Some examples that may be interesting to parents and teachers:
* There are 25,616 private schools (elementary and secondary) in the U.S., half of which are Protestant.
* 45% of the Protestant schools have been in operation for only ten years or less. Only 29% of Protestant schools have been in existence for 25 years or more.
*Average number of students: Catholic schools – 363; Protestant schools – 142. Total number of teachers: Catholic schools-185,000; Protestant schools – 142,000. Average annual salary for teachers: Catholic schools – $15,100; Protestant schools – $14,800.