The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is allied with the American Civil Liberties Union and 40 other groups in pushing legislation in Congress that would prohibit the government from interfering with religious practices unless there is a "compelling interest."
The alliance stems from a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Oregon could deny unemployment benefits to drug rehabilitation counselors who were fired for the sacramental use of peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, in Native American religious ceremonies.The church does not support the use of peyote, but, like the ACLU, it is concerned that the court ruling could result in a loss of religious freedom.
Not since its successful opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment has the LDS Church officially involved itself with legislation before Congress.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1991, scheduled to be reintroduced this week by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Joseph Biden, D-Del., is designed to restore the longstanding test which requires the government to demonstrate a "compelling interest" in order to interfere with a religious practice.
The 42 concerned groups have created the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion, primarily to promote this bill.
"It has been thrilling to work with other coalition members, to have something in common that we can all work positively on," said Myrna Wahlquist, LDS public affairs manager for the Northeast Area and Mormon liaison to the coalition.
"The implications of this ruling are staggering and extend far beyond the concerns of Native American religions," said Rep. Stephen J. Solarz, D-N.Y.
Religious communities have objected to the decision. While few support the use of hallucinogenic drugs, they necessarily fear for their own unique practices.
In the future, say proponents of the bill, the decision could jeopardize the use of ceremonial wine, the right of public school students to be excused for religious holidays, the practice of kosher slaughter, the right to wear religious garments such as yarmulkes or not to wear gym uniforms they believe are immodest.
"The Supreme Court decided to attack the rights of all religious Americans using the rights of a very unpopular religious practice. The LDS church has not always been popular among all the religions. They recognize that if you don't stick up for the least popular, there will be no one left to stick up for you," said David Lachmann, aide to Solarz.
Among other members of the Coalition are the American Jewish Committee, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Christian Science Committee on Publication, National Council of Churches, People for the American Way and the United Church of Christ.
The Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and the Family Research Council do not back the bill because they fear it could be used to assert a right to abortions.