Religious freedom causing stir in General Assembly

March 14, 1998|By GUY FLETCHER

Religious freedom causing stir in General Assembly

ANNAPOLIS - Maryland has long been touted as a symbol for religious freedom, from its settlement by Roman Catholics to the passage of laws that promoted tolerance and inclusion.

So why is such a mom-and-apple pie issue causing such a stir in the General Assembly this year?

Because many people believe a four-page piece of legislation simply titled "Religious Freedom" would go much further than keeping government control out of religious observances.

Instead, they insist, the broad language in the legislation could lead to widespread lawsuits and diminished local zoning regulations, and cost state prisons millions of dollars each year to prepare special meals - all in the name of religious freedom.


"You can be for religious freedom, but there comes a point, when it costs tons and tons of money, that it makes no sense," said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington.

Donoghue, a Catholic who said he cannot support the bill in its current form, is actually one of its 62 co-sponsors in the House of Delegates. Like many of his colleagues, he said he signed on to the legislation early this year after it was presented to him as simply a noncontroversial means to guarantee freedom of religious expression.

"It was really kind of an innocuous bill," he said.

It was difficult for many lawmakers to find anything threatening with the concept, especially one that was supported by Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim leaders at a hearing earlier this month.

"We're not coming to you in search of religious advantage. As we do not ask for more, we cannot accept less," Cardinal William Keeler, Catholic archbishop of Baltimore, told the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee.

The legislation seeks to restore a legal standard in which the Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that the government must have a "compelling interest" to restrict a person's observance of religion. That decision was overturned by the court in 1990.

Proponents of the legislation said without the restrictions, governments could refuse to accommodate religious observances, such as for employees whose faiths require them to wear certain clothes.

But the legislation goes beyond the previous standard, requiring that the government interest be "of the highest order arising from a substantial threat to public health, safety, peace and order."

Such blanket protection would severely limit the abilities of cities to address the concerns of people living near religious facilities, according to the Maryland Municipal League.

Those cities that attempt to enforce building codes and zoning regulations against religious facilities could be sued for burdening religious exercise, the organization said.

"It opens up a whole lot of avenues for much, much litigation against the cities," said Hagerstown City Clerk Gann Breichner, a member of the Municipal League's legislative committee.

The bill would also cost the state $10.5 million a year to provide special diets to many of the state's 26,000 prison inmates, who represent more than 37 different religions, according to the Department of Legislative Services.

Del. Louise V. Snodgrass, R-Frederick/Washington, called the legislation "a disaster" that could create numerous problems for the prisons.

"If they don't have kosher jellybeans and this law passes, they are going to have to go out and buy them," Snodgrass said.

Snodgrass, who is Catholic, said the legislation has put many lawmakers in an uncomfortable position, where opposing the bill makes it seem like they are challenging a staple of American culture.

"Who's against religious freedom? No one's against religious freedom," she said.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is scheduled to hear testimony on the legislation Tuesday.

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