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Posted: Wednesday, September 9, 2009 8:01 pm
KNOXVILLE (AP) — The Tennessee Municipal League says it may discuss repealing or modifying a new law it believes sets the stage for legal challenges to multiple state statutes and local ordinances that interfere with professed religious beliefs.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act that took effect in June puts in place a “strict scrutiny” legal rule that makes it easier for people claiming a law or ordinance violates their religious beliefs to win their cases.
According to an article published by the Tennessee Municipal League, “Tennessee state and local governments will now face an uphill battle in upholding laws of general applicability when someone claiming religious offense cries foul.” The article was written by Josh Jones, a legal consultant for the University of Tennessee’s Municipal Advisory Service, and published in the current issue of Town and City, the TML’s official newspaper. Carole Graves, communications director for the statewide organization representing city governments and editor of the newspaper, told The Knoxville News Sentinel that the article was published because many city officials may not be aware of the new law and its ramifications.
Supporters of the law said the concerns are unfounded.
“All we’ve said (in the law) is simply that the first freedom is the freedom of religion,” said former state Republican Sen. David Fowler, the president of Family Action of Tennessee, which lobbied for passage of the measure.
“If it requires local governments to think about what they’re doing rather than proceed willy-nilly, well, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s appropriate to ask the government: ’Is there a compelling reason for what we’re doing? Is there a lesser way to accomplish it without impacting someone’s religious freedom?”’
House sponsor Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, said that the law “simply restores a doctrine we had in place until 1990” and will protect religious expression, not threaten needed laws. As an example of why it is good to have such a law on the books, Lynn cited a school in her district that required children to cover up the word “God” on signs they brought to a function on school grounds. The signs had statements such as “in God we trust,” she said. “The state has no compelling interest in having the word ’God’ covered,” she said. “If you’re talking about a law that would protect people’s lives, that would be a compelling interest” that a court could uphold under the law. Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee, said her organization was concerned about the new law being used as “a guise to discriminate” by governments passing laws to favor one religion over another.
Published in The Messenger 9.9.09