New Mexico's Religious Freedom Bill is Part of a Nationwide Trend, says Adventist Leader

A bill protecting freedom of religion is one step closer to becoming law in New Mexico

Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA | Bettina Krause / ANN

A bill protecting freedom of religion is one step closer to becoming law in New Mexico, say local Seventh-day Adventist Church members who support the legislation. The proposed law, which was unanimously approved last week by the House in New Mexico, would make it more difficult for state governments to pass laws that restricted a person’s faith.

Adventist Church members in Albuquerque worked in support of the legislation, joining a broad coalition of civil rights activists and religious organizations, including the American Sikhs, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations and a number of Christian groups.

“This may seem like an isolated state action, but it has a broader significance,” says Richard Lee Fenn, associate director of the public affairs and religious liberty department for the world Church. Pointing to the eight similar bills that have been passed by state legislatures since 1991, Fenn says there is a “growing realization throughout the United States that we can no longer afford to take our religious free exercise rights for granted, and that if the federal government cannot act, then the states must move to ensure that our heritage of religious liberty is safeguarded.”

The recent move to shore up religious rights in the United States is in response to post-1990 decisions by the Supreme Court that have lowered the level of legal protection available to people of faith. Under current precedent, federal or state laws that operate to inhibit the free exercise of religion will not run afoul of the First Amendment, unless it can be shown that the government has specifically intended to restrict religious action.

But as Fenn points out, the majority of laws that hurt people of faith are not specifically targeted at religion. He points to zoning laws, which can make it difficult for religious organizations to get permission to build houses of worship, or dress codes for state employees that may not make allowances for special religious headgear. “Why should these laws be exempt from scrutiny?” asks Fenn.

An attempt to fix the problem at the federal level failed, when in 1997 the Supreme Court struck down the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 as being outside the constitutional authority of Congress. A similar federal bill-the Religious Liberty Protection Act-passed the House in 1999 but now appears to have stalled in the Senate (refer to ANN Bulletin December 21, 1999).

The fate of the New Mexico measure is uncertain; although the state Senate is likely to pass the bill, New Mexico’s governor, Gary Johnson, vetoed a similar law passed by the legislature last year.