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Religious Freedom vs. Civil Rights: Maine Lawmakers Debate Bill
01/16/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Religious freedom is defined under the Maine Constitution, but not clearly enough for dozens of Mainers supporting a bill that would provide additional safeguards for the faithful. They say the bill is needed at the state level to guarantee the same type of religious freedoms protected under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1997. But the bill carries punitive provisions that critics say would permit religious-based discrimination and disregard of basic human rights. A.J. Higgins has more.

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State Sen. David Burns says federal court rulings from the 1990s that adversely affected the religious rights of individuals have since been revisited by the courts, and many of the protections have been restored - but only at the federal level.

The Whiting Republican says it's now up to Maine and other states to craft legislation that ensures that a state must have a compelling interest to infringe upon a person's religious rights.

Burns told members of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee that 18 states have enacted such laws in response to situations that could arise in the absence of a compelling interest standard. That's the standard necessary for using religion as a reason to opt out of state law, including state-ordered medical autopsies.

"After 1990, governments throughout the United States also subjected members of the Jewish faith to autopsies, despite their religious objections," Burns said. "They zoned churches out of commercial areas and in one case, forced a religious shelter for the homeless to close because it could not afford an elevator."

Burns bill would demand that government address religious-based issues, such as autopsies, in the least restrictive manner possible.

The Burns bill has the support of the Liberty Institute, which has defended religious groups who feel their rights are under attack by state policies. Jeremy Dys, an attorney with the Liberty Institute, pointed to recent case involving Isaiah 61 Ministries in Pennsylvania, which has a law on its books similar to the legislation offered by Sen. Burns.

Dys said the religious group was exercising its religious rights by feeding the homeless and the elderly on public property. Dys said county officials objected to the activities because they found the homeless population to be unsightly and took action.

"The county posted 'no trespassing' signs, a violation of which carried the potential of both fines and jail time for the faithful volunteers of Isaiah 61 Ministries," Dys said. "Well after reminding the Dauphin County Commission that state law required them to provide a compelling interest before limiting the religious liberty of Isaiah 61 Ministries on public property, county officials quickly settled, avoided litigation. And this critical humanitarian ministry is serving the community today."

And there are other situations that could arise that Mainers worry about. Chris Grimbilas, pastor of Faithway Baptist Church in Jay, says he wants to prevent the kind of discrimination that happened to a young girl in California whose elementary school teacher asked her to present an example of a family-based Christmas tradition. He said the girl brought in a star that she said represented wise seeking Jesus the savior. And that's about as far as she got.

"She was told to sit down, she would not be allowed to speak, the Bible wasn't allowed in her school, Grimbilas said. "And she was the only member of her class not entitled to finish her presentation - such is an attack on her faith."

"No one in this room would want to deprive somebody else the right to practice their religion," said Maine Attorney General Janet Mills. "But I say words in every bill are important, words in every statute have meaning. And the great danger here, I say, is that the law may give special rights to some, while infringing on the rights of others."

Mills is among the critics of the Burns bill. She says language in the bill could be used to deprive others of their civil rights.

The Maine chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says it is concerned the bill that could allow anyone who claims a law or regulation has burdened their religious freedom to sue for monetary damages - even pre-emptively. Other opponents say the bill could be used by employers who might wish to hire only people who share their religion, or by landlords who might wish to evict a tenant based on his or her sexual orientation.

That's the kind of example that would create problems for Amy Sneirson of the Maine Human Rights Commission. Sneirson says religious rights can't be used to infringe upon someone else's civil rights.

"This law is not necessary," Sneirson said. "The Maine Human Rights Act already protects the rights to exercise religion in Maine, and does so in a balanced way."

Lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee say they will be working the bill for the next several weeks in an attempt to determine the level of committee support.


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