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Hatch offers new bill on religious freedom

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Seeking to restore religious liberties that the Supreme Court struck down last year, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was pastor of an unusual religious revival meeting Tuesday.

He brought together 80 groups ranging from Southern Baptists to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jews and Muslims, Democrats and Republicans and even the liberal American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative Christian Coalition.They held a Capitol Hill rally jointly to support Hatch and allies as they introduced legislation to restore much of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which Hatch wrote and passed - but which the court largely overturned last year.

The new bill would allow government to interfere with religion only when it has an overriding, compelling reason - such as to protect health and safety - but then to do so only in the least restrictive manner possible.

"We believe we have constructed legislation that can merit the support of all who value the free exercise of religion, our first freedom," Hatch said.

His chief co-sponsor, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., agreed, and said the bill is needed because "the complex rules used to govern our modern society and economy unnecessarily, and often unintentionally, interfere with religious freedom."

Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., the chief House sponsor, had several examples of problems that have arisen in the year since the original law was struck down.

He said Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles were barred by zoning laws from meeting in the home of a member - which they did because their religion forbids them from riding in cars on the Sabbath, and their synagogues were too far away to walk.

"Rabbi (Chaim) Rubin and the people in his congregation are being forced to choose between practicing their faith and obeying the law," Canady said.

Canady added that Catholics "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. Jehovah's Witnesses have been denied jobs because they refused - in keeping with their faith - to take an oath."

Last June, the Supreme Court struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act through a case where a small Texas town sought to prevent expansion of a Catholic chapel by using zoning and historic preservation laws.

The court ruled that Congress had improperly tried through the law to create new rights that went beyond protection intended in the First Amendment's freedom of religion.

Many churches and other groups - which contend instead that court rulings in recent years have restricted religion beyond what the Founding Fathers intended - lined up to speak in support of the new legislation.

T. LaMar Sleight, LDS Church spokesman in Washington, read a statement saying his church supports the bill because "of the importance of the free exercise of religion to the freedom and well-being of a pluralistic society."

He said that for the 10 million members of his church, the bill implements a vital principal in its 13th Article of Faith: "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where or what they may."

Baptist Joint Committee General Counsel J. Brent Walker said, "Unless there is a compelling reason not to, government should accommodate the religious practices of all faiths."

Among the range of other groups joining a coalition supporting the bill were: the American Muslim Council, the American Jewish Congress, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Sikh Center.

Hatch's bill comes a week after the House rejected a constitutional amendment - pushed by fellow LDS member Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla. - designed to allow school prayer and other religious expression in public areas.

Liberal groups said they opposed it but favor the new legislation because they feel Istook's amendment could have mandated participation in some religious practices by unbelievers - such as graduation prayers - but said Hatch's will not do that.