President Clinton has signed into law a measure to provide protection for religious freedom in two areas where discrimination has increased in recent years.

The president signed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act at a Sept. 21 ceremony. The law, which both the Senate and House of Representatives approved without dissent in late July, was designed to protect the religious-freedom rights of churches and other religious bodies against discriminatory land-use regulations and of people in institutions such as prisons and mental hospitals.

Representatives of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission applauded RLUIPA's enactment but said the agency would work in the next session of Congress to pass more far-reaching legislation.

"Americans now have more freedom to exercise their religious faith than they did before the president signed this bill into law," said ERLC President Richard Land. "That should be a cause for celebration by every citizen."

Shannon Royce, the ERLC's legislative counsel who attended the oval office signing ceremony, said, "While we're disappointed we were unable to get a more comprehensive law enacted, we're pleased that we can cover 80 percent of the cases by addressing the two major areas covered by this legislation. We will make every effort in a new congressional session to advance the cause of religious liberty to the place where all Americans are fully protected in the expression of their faith."

The new law is narrower in focus than a measure that was promoted by the ERLC and others earlier in the session. That bill, the Religious Liberty Protection Act, passed the House but failed to receive Senate approval.

RLUIPA addresses the two categories where its advocates say the overwhelming majority of free-exercise-of-religion problems have arisen in recent years. While it only addresses land use and people in institutions, RLUIPA is like RLPA in that it utilizes the spending clause, the interstate commerce clause and the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Like RLPA, the bill also prevents a government entity from substantially burdening the free exercise of religion unless it demonstrates it has a "compelling interest."

Congressional committees have received testimony showing local communities have used zoning laws and land-use regulations to prevent churches and other religious bodies from building, buying or leasing spaces to meet and to limit attendance at such meetings.

"This bill will benefit churches, synagogues and other places of worship whose growth has been stymied by overly restrictive zoning boards," said Carl Esbeck of the Christian Legal Society in a written release. "Municipalities will no longer be able to create religion-free zones that effectively ban churches from building houses of worship."

In addressing institutionalized people, the bill is designed to protect the religious rights of prisoners and patients while not undercutting security and discipline.

A diverse group of organizations supported the legislation. In addition to the ERLC and CLS, coalition members included the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Prison Fellowship, American Civil Liberties Union, Family Research Council, National Council of Churches, American Jewish Congress and U.S. Catholic Conference.

RLPA, which was stymied in the Senate, was a secondary attempt to alleviate problems for religious liberty brought on by a high court opinion. It was a response to the Supreme Court's 1997 ruling overturning the Religious Freedom Restoration Act at the state and local levels.

RFRA, also supported by a broad coalition, was enacted in 1993 in order to remedy the 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, in which the Supreme Court rejected a previous requirement the government must show it has a "compelling interest" in restricting religious exercise and its action is the "least restrictive means" in furthering that interest. Instead, the high court said the government only must show a law is neutral toward religion. RFRA restored the "compelling interest/least restrictive" test, but the justices rejected the law in the City of Boerne v. Flores decision, ruling Congress exceeded its authority.

Related Elsewhere

Read more about the new religious liberty bill in the Los Angeles Times' "U.S. Restores Special Protections for Religious Groups" or in the Associated Press's "Clinton Signs Church Zoning Bill."

Previous Christianity Today stories about church zoning woes include:

Churches Reject 'Worship Tax' | (Sept. 6, 1999)

Permission Denied | Municipalities and neighbors are increasingly resistant to church construction and expansion. (April 28, 1997)

Supreme Court Ruling Due on Church Expansion Dispute | (April 28, 1997)