Politics

January 17

Maine bill spurs debate: Religious freedom or special rights?

The proposal to prohibit the state from infinging on the right to worship faces long odds.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — People from a range of religions filled the State House on Thursday to support a bill that they said would affirm a constitutional protection prohibiting the government from infringing on their right to worship.

click image to enlarge

Carroll Conley Jr., executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, addresses supporters of L.D. 1428 on Thursday before a public hearing on the bill. He said a broad multi-faith coalition hopes to see the bill passed by the Legislature.

Photos by Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

click image to enlarge

Apollo Karara of Portland, a Rwandan refugee, said the bill could lead to intolerance of some religious and ethnic groups.

They were met by opponents – some from religious groups – who warned that the bill would go too far, so far that it would let people ignore or break laws and discriminate against others under the guise of religious freedom.

The bill, L.D. 1428, sponsored by Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, is similar to legislation proposed, and in several instances enacted, in other states. The proposals are backed by faith organizations that argue that a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision unraveled key protections of the First Amendment by saying states no longer must prove that a law imposes a substantial burden on religious freedom.

In 1993, President Clinton tried to bring back some of those protections when he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. A second court decision left it up to states to adopt the federal standard.

Burns said his bill, co-sponsored by eight Republicans and one Democrat, would bring Maine closer to the federal law.

“It merely requires the government to thoughtfully weigh its own interests against the religious-liberty interests of its citizens,” he said.

Opponents, including Attorney General Janet Mills, said the bill would go beyond the federal law.

“The great danger here is that the law may give special rights to some while infringing on the rights of others,” she said. “It may be an unintended consequence, but it’s a real consequence.”

Mills’ opposition centered on language in the bill that she said could hinder the enforcement of laws.

She said, “If I believe that it’s part of my religious belief that I should be able to butcher and sacrifice a dog every Saturday morning in the town square and offer up its remains to the supreme being, no police officer or state official could stop me.”

Mills’ assessment was panned by several proponents of the bill.

Chris Grimbilas, a pastor at the Faith Way Baptist Church in Jay, said there are plenty of examples nationally that show the law is needed.

Grimbilas told the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee about a news account of a 6-year-old student at an elementary school in California who was reportedly lectured and humiliated for telling a story in class about the birth of Jesus Christ during a Christmas event.

The story was quickly picked up by Fox News, whose talk show personalities have frequently railed against the “war on Christmas.”

Angel Daigle, who identified herself as a nurse at a health clinic, told the committee that she had been required to give a patient the “morning after pill” despite her religious objections to abortion.

“I refused and was told that my job was in jeopardy,” she said. “I was also told that I could not wear any jewelry, including a cross necklace, because it might be offensive. What happened to In God We Trust?”

Amy Sneirson, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission, said the Maine Human Rights Act reinforces protections in the First Amendment.

She said L.D. 1428 could lead to discrimination by prioritizing religious belief over all other rights protected in the Human Rights Act.

She said it could potentially nullify the Human Rights Act altogether.

In other states, similar bills have been rejected for fear that they could be used to justify refusal of health care and other services.

Oamshri Amarasingham, testifying for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said her organization has fought to protect religious freedom across the United States.

“We will always fight for the right of individuals to believe what they choose,” she said. “But L.D. 1428 goes far beyond protecting religious freedom, so far that it would allow people to use their religion to ignore important laws that are meant to protect the common good of all Mainers.”

The bill was supported by Christian Civic League and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.

It faces long odds for passage. Democrats, who have majorities in the House and Senate, have said they will oppose the bill.

Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the assistant Senate minority leader, suggested a compromise that would allow Maine to adopt a law that mirrors the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

He said people should be wary that government interests can trump personal freedoms, even those that are constitutionally protected.

The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider its recommendation on the bill Jan. 23

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler

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