Greenbelt Interfaith News
    U.S. News

    November 1997

    Interfaith Coalition Backs Religious Freedom Bill for California
    By Lori Eppstein
    Jewish Bulletin of Northern California

    It's been only a few years since Chabad of Marin found itself in a nasty dispute over its synagogue in a posh neighborhood north of San Rafael, California, but the circumstances could apply to any religious group in any community today.

    Chabad wanted a synagogue within walking distance of its 10 families in the Lucas Valley neighborhood. The Lucas Valley homeowners, however, didn't want to live next door to a shul and religious school.

    After three years of feuding that left red tape and piles of court documents in its wake, the disputants struck an agreement that allowed Chabad to have its synagogue.

    The Lubavitchers were lucky; if they were to enter into the same dispute today, they would find that the law is no longer on their side.

    The case typifies the kinds of religious liberty abuses that have gone unchecked since the dissolution last June of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, said American Jewish Congress attorney Marc Stern during a stopover in the San Francisco Bay Area in early October.

    The RFRA required governments to negotiate with worshippers when a conflict arose between religious observance and public interest. But the U.S. Supreme Court axed the law for infringing on states' rights to govern their own civil affairs.

    However, if Stern gets his way, the RFRA will return as state law. The California bill could be the first to be passed since the federal act was dismantled.

    The lawyer lingered in San Francisco long enough to pick up colleague Fred Blum, chair of the local AJCongress board of trustees, on his way to present a new RFRA to the state Assembly Judiciary Committee on October 8.

    While no legislation is a sure thing, Stern claims his campaign has been carefully planned and has widespread support.

    "We're not asking the California legislature to buy a pig in a poke. There have been three or four years of litigation [under the original RFRA]. It has broad appeal and it has been tested."

    Drafted by an interfaith coalition of 18 religious and civil liberties organizations and sponsored by Assemblyman Joe Baca (D-San Bernardino), the new RFRA is almost identical to its predecessor, except for minor modifications to make it applicable to state law.

    The bill would require California governments to demonstrate a compelling interest in cases where the free exercise of religion is substantially burdened by the government.

    For example, in a situation in which a Jewish group wants to build a synagogue in a residentially zoned area, the group would apply for a zoning change, proposing solutions to minimize problems such as traffic congestion and noise.

    If the government entity then wanted to deny the application, the new RFRA would require the government to prove that either the proposed solutions were insufficient or that government interests override those of the Jews.

    Other religious interests protected by the RFRA would include prisoners' rights to have prayerbooks of their own faith, to see a chaplain, to observe religious holidays and to eat kosher food.

    Public schools could not require children to sing religious songs in holiday pageants without a compelling reason. And historical-landmark organizations could not prevent a congregation from making physical changes to their historical houses of worship without an overriding interest.

    At the Assembly committee hearing, several groups testified against the bill.

    An attorney representing the League of California Cities asked for a zoning and building safety exemption in the bill that would allow cities to deny zoning variances to religious groups. The attorney was unavailable for comment.

    And a law professor from UCLA argued that the RFRA would give undue preference to religious groups.

    Blum reported that committee members questioned the rush to adopt the RFRA before the California Supreme Court gets a chance to rule on a test case, which would give lawmakers a clue as to which way the legal winds are blowing.

    But Blum argued in a recent interview, "We can't afford to wait. People really need to know so that they can determine when and how they can practice their religion."

    The bill remains with the Assembly Judiciary Committee, and it will be taken up again in January. Yet even if it eventually becomes a law, Stern warned, the RFRA cannot guarantee that religious interests always will prevail.

    Religious liberty will not convince a judge to allow a 20,000-member congregation to build a synagogue on wetlands, nor will it give credence to "outlandish claims," he said.

    "RFRA is an inquiry, not a substantive rule of law," he said. "It mandates the second look; it doesn't mandate that anything be permitted or not permitted.

    "It doesn't answer the question; it just requires that the question be asked."

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    © 1997 San Francisco Jewish Community Publications Inc., dba Jewish Bulletin of Northern California
    This article was republished with permission.