The Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom is in peril, an apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told the Senate in a rare appearance on Tuesday.
"The free exercise of religion enshrined in our Constitution is in jeopardy and cries out for protection," Elder Dallin H. Oaks - a former Utah Supreme Court justice - told the Senate Judiciary Committee.He testified in favor of a bill by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., to restore safeguards for religious freedom that were struck down by the Supreme Court last year.
It marked only the fourth time that the church has sent high priesthood officials to Congress to present an official position on legislation - and all involved worry over religious liberty.
The first was in 1839 when church founder Joseph Smith sought help against persecution of its members in Missouri. The second was in 1904 to decry anti-Mormon attempts not to seat Sen. Reed Smoot, R-Utah, who himself was an LDS apostle.
The third was when Elder Oaks appeared before Congress in 1993 to push the Religious Freedom Restoration Act - which passed but was partially struck down by the Supreme Court. On Tuesday, he appeared to endorse for the church a bill to restore part of it.
Elder Oaks said the church endorses Hatch's bill to require state and local governments to have an overriding "compelling" interest before they can interfere with religious practices through programs receiving federal funds or through zoning rules and then do so in the least restrictive way possible.
He said that "compelling interest" standard had been the rule for years. But the Supreme Court abandoned it and allows general government rules to interfere with religious practices - as long as discrimination was not their goal.
"It is nothing short of outrageous that the Supreme Court extends extraordinary protection to words that cannot be found within the Constitution, such as the `right to privacy,' while abandoning the vital `compelling governmental interest' requirement that is needed to ensure the effectiveness of the express Bill of Rights language guaranteeing the free exercise of religion," he said.
Rabbi David Zeibel, representing an Orthodox Jewish group, told the Senate such changes have made it difficult for some Jews, for example, to wear yarmulkes at school, receive kosher foods (because of government food processing rules); and avoid autopsies, which violate their religious beliefs.
Elder Oaks added that a study by Brigham Young University law professor W. Cole Durham found that minority religions were five time more likely to have zoning action taken against them to prevent them building churches than were large church groups.
Elder Oaks said those who need the Constitution's protection of religious liberty the most "are the beleaguered minorities, not the influential constituent elements of the majority."
He said the LDS Church has a special reason to seek better protection of religious liberty because of the persecution it suffered in its early history despite constitutional guarantees that should have prevented it.
"No other major religious group in America has endured anything comparable to the officially sanctioned persecution imposed upon members of my church in the 19th century by federal, state and local governments," he said.
"Mormons were driven from state to state, sometimes by direct government action, and finally expelled from the existing borders of the United States, only to be persecuted anew when those borders expanded to include the territory of Utah."
Hatch said, "Perhaps the Mormons are no longer driven from state to state . . . but they are still told they cannot build their temples in certain towns."
Kennedy also complained that the Supreme Court is saying "individuals are free to believe in their religion, but they don't necessarily have the right to exercise it."
Some witnesses said the bill is as unconstitutional as the overturned law it intends to replace. But University of Utah law professor Michael W. McConnell, disagreed.
"The proposed bill is plainly constitutional," he said - but noted it had to use some back-door methods to ensure that goal, essentially relying on powers given Congress to regulate commerce rather than the First Amendment freedom of religion.
He noted the bill "does not purport to protect religious liberty as a constitutional right. Rather, it states as federal policy that religious liberty must be respected within all programs receiving federal financial assistance."