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America must end its hypocrisy about religious freedom

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America views itself as a refuge for religious freedom, as a wonderful example for other nations.

It may be wrong.Congress is gathering evidence of ongoing religious discrimination in the United States today, often coming from government itself.

And U.S. history is full of examples where America's actions did not live up to the First Amendment's lofty language guaranteeing free exercise of religion for all - such as watching mobs murder and force Mormons from Missouri to Illinois to Utah.

In fact, some international experts say democracies emerging from formerly Communist countries - which are often criticized today by Americans for restrictions on religion - seem to be following America's two-faced example.

Evidence of ongoing discrimination has emerged in hearings on a bill by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to restore some safeguards on religion that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down.

Hatch is trying again to force state and local governments not to allow programs using federal funds to infringe on religious practices unless they have an overriding "compelling reason" to do so, and then do it in the least restrictive manner possible.

Currently, the court determined rules that inadvertently hinder religious practices are OK as long as discrimination was not their goal.

Hatch says examples of abuses that his bill could stop include using zoning laws to harass smaller church groups out of neighborhoods that may not like them.

A study by Brigham Young University law professor W. Cole Durham found that minority religions were five times more likely to have zoning action taken against them to prevent them building churches than were large religious groups.

As Durham told a House hearing, "The differences are so staggering that it is virtually impossible to imagine that religious discrimination is not playing a significant role."

An egregious example was an Islamic Center in Starkville, Miss. It was long delayed and moved from site to site because of opposition. Months after a site was finally approved, the city ordered services stopped there because of complaints.

"What made this whole course of action particularly galling was that there was a residence next door that was used as a worship center for Pentecostal Christians. This group caused more noise, provided less parking and in general seemed less deserving of a zoning exception than the Islamic Center," Durham said.

Rabbi David Zeibel, representing an Orthodox Jewish group, said rules allowed by Supreme Court action also made it difficult for Jews to wear yarmulkes at school and work (because of dress standards), receive kosher foods (because of government food processing rules), and avoid autopsies that violate their religious beliefs.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Council of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints testified such problems show, "The free exercise of religion enshrined in our Constitution is in jeopardy and cries out for protection."

He said his church has special cause to push to protect such freedom because of its early persecution. Hatch also said, "Perhaps the Mormons are no longer driven from state to state . . . but they are still told they cannot build their temples in certain towns."

Meanwhile, experts at a recent Washington seminar by Emory University noted America is threatening sanctions against Russia for doing what it did in its early history: guarantee religious freedom in its constitution but follow up with other laws restricting it.

"The Alien and Sedition Acts were passed by almost the same Congress that passed the Bill of Rights," reminded T. Jeremy Gunn, counsel for the National Committee on Public Education and Religious Liberty. Those acts allowed imprisonment of anyone who criticized the government or who was seen as "dangerous."

If America wants to influence other countries - not to mention live up to promises in its own Constitution - it must vigorously end all religious discrimination at home.

Otherwise, Americans will look like hypocrites - and, worse, even show others how to discriminate while claiming it's not really happening.