Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the LDS Church told the Senate Friday that unless it passes the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the government will increasingly interfere with religious practices.

But the Catholic Church and pro-life groups oppose the bill by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., fearing it could be twisted to help protect abortion and even polygamy for groups that claim such practices are key to their religion.The bill is designed to overturn a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision. It changed a 30-year-old rule that laws could interfere with religious practices only if the government could prove it had a major "compelling interest" to do so and then used the least restrictive means possible.

The new decision gives much less protection, allowing laws to interfere as long as their purpose is rational and they do not specifically target any one group for discrimination.

As an example of problems that now occur, Hatch said, "If a state has a legal drinking age of 21, it would be illegal for anyone under that age to use sacramental wine . . .

"A Jewish student in a public school who wished to wear a yarmulke in class can be forced to remove it pursuant to a general rule against headware in class."

Witnesses at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing say the ruling has already been used to force autopsies on people whose religion opposes them, to zone churches out of towns and take away accreditation for hospitals that will not perform abortions.

Elder Oaks, a member of the Council of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the history of the LDS Church shows such interference and persecution is likely to increase without better protection.

"In the 19th century, our members were literally driven from state to state, sometimes by direct government action, and finally expelled from the existing borders of the United States," he said.

When the federal government passed anti-polygamy laws in the late 19th century, Elder Oaks said the church's "properties were seized. Many church leaders and members were imprisoned. People signifying a belief in the doctrine of my church were deprived of the right to hold public office or sit on juries, and they were even denied the right to vote in elections."

Elder Oaks - a former Utah Supreme Court Justice, U.S. Supreme Court clerk and law professor - said, "If past is prologue, the forces of local, state and federal governmental power, now freed from the compelling government interest test, will increasingly interfere with the free exercise of religion."

He said his own 8-million-member church likely would not be a target because of the political strength it now has, but small groups . . .could be hurt.

He said the LDS Church empathizes with them because although it "is now among the five largest churches in America, we were once an obscure and unpopular group whose members repeatedly fell victim to officially sanctioned persecution."

While a coalition of 54 major faiths and civil rights groups back the bill, the Catholic Church and the National Right to Life Committee oppose it as a possible back-door attempt to ensure continued legalization of abortion.

Mark E. Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Catholic Conference, noted a woman in a Utah abortion case claimed abortion was a key part of complying with her religion - but that claim was disallowed because of the 1990 case that the bill would overturn.

"If this bill had passed, her claim may have been allowed," he said. "The lives of the unborn are too important to be put at risk."