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FEDERAL ACTIONS COME CLOSE TO CURBING RELIGIOUS FREEDOMS

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The federal government is coming dangerously close to intruding into the area of religious freedom. Some flags have been thrown down, and the government needs to proceed with caution.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has proposed guidelines aimed at combating religious harassment on the job. Church and civil liberties groups are concerned that the proposal as written could be used by employers to create a religion-free workplace.Meanwhile, the Justice Department is acting like Caesar's tax collector. It has joined a court case on the side of forcing a church to cough up money a couple had tithed before declaring bankruptcy. Two courts have ruled in favor of the bankruptcy creditors, and the case is now being appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The idea of the government ruling on the difference between religious harassment and religious freedom should give us pause. The idea of the state ordering a church to pay back a parishioner's creditors should give us chills.

In 1992, Bruce and Nancy Young, owners of an electrical business in Minneapolis, filed for bankruptcy. Creditors scrambled to find assets to liquidate. The search led them to the Crystal Evangelical Free Church, where the Youngs had worshiped and tithed for years. Citing a federal tax provision that allows bankruptcy creditors to seize donations, a local court ordered the church to hand over more than $13,000 the Youngs had put in the collection plate during the 12 months prior to their bankruptcy filing. The church refused, and the legal battle was joined.

The law permitting seizure of donations is not frivolous. It was designed to keep people who plan to go into bankruptcy from squandering assets and money already owed to others. But there is no evidence the Youngs were trying to pull a fast one. They were longtime church members who believed in tithing. The money appears to have been given and received in good faith.

The Justice Department, which has asked to participate in oral arguments before the appeals court, takes the position that the Youngs received nothing of value in return for their donations to the church. Therefore, it figures, their tithes and offerings are fair game for creditors.

But what if instead of giving the money to the church the couple had decided to donate it to a homeless shelter or to a scholarship fund for minority students? Would their creditors and the courts go after the money? What value would they have received from giving to a homeless shelter or a scholarship fund, other than knowing they have done something good for other human beings? Who is the Justice Department to say that church tithing is without value?

Amazingly, this case has received less attention than the government's plan to crack down on religious harassment in the workplace. Let's hope the EEOC is more open to reason than the Justice Department.

The EEOC, a federal bureaucracy known for its sometimes bizarre interpretations of anti-discrimination laws, last year proposed guidelines designed to fight religious bigotry in the workplace. It defined harassment as "verbal or physical conduct that denigrates or shows hostility to or aversion toward an individual" and includes behavior such as verbal slurs and "threatening, intimidating or hostile acts."

Conservative Christian groups see the proposed rules as "daggers aimed at the heart of religious expression," as Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition put it. It's not just the Christian right that's sounding the alarm. Civil liberties groups have their own concerns about the proposed rules.

Bob Peck, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, told a Senate subcommittee that the guidelines were problematic. "Because (they) were drafted so broadly, (they) are susceptible to a reading that a religion-free workplace is required to avoid liability for religious harassment," he said.

That is the real danger. Some employers, rather than risk lawsuits, might decide to ban all religious symbols and expression in the workplace. Would a Bible on a worker's desk offend a Muslim co-worker? Would workers be permitted to say a prayer before lunch? Stranger things have happened in the name of stamping out harassment. At an Iowa university, for example, a teaching assistant was ordered to remove the picture of his bikini-clad wife from his desk. Two female co-workers complained that the picture created a hostile work environment.

EEOC executive director Douglas -Gal-legos testified at a Senate hearing that the rules as written "would not forbid wearing a cross or a yarmulke at work or inviting a colleague to church." The guidelines, he assured the senators, are open to revision to satisfy the concerns of both church groups and the ACLU.

The ACLU's Peck said that rules are needed to protect workers against religious bigotry and urged that the EEOC proposal be rewritten - not scrapped - to reflect greater First Amendment sensitivity.

Last year, Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The law says the government may not "substantially burden" a person's or group's free exercise of religion without establishing a "compelling state interest." These two cases pose an early test of the new law's protective reach.