WASHINGTON — The Senate approved legislation Wednesday restoring the highest level of legal protection to individuals who exercise their religious freedom.
The legislation, which was supported by groups as diverse as the National Assn. of Evangelicals and the American Civil Liberties Union, reverses a 1990 Supreme Court ruling that watered down the traditional protection for religious liberty.
In that decision involving an American Indian who used the illegal drug peyote during a religious ceremony, the court said that government policies, such as drug laws, prison regulations or zoning ordinances, would prevail over an individual's right to practice religion.
The 5-4 opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia overturned decades of court precedents, and stunned religious rights advocates. Shortly afterward, they formed a broad coalition to win a reversal in Congress.
The new bill says that the government cannot infringe on an individual's exercise of religious freedom except for the most "compelling" reason. That had been the standard prior to 1990 ruling.
"Not since the adoption of the First Amendment has the Congress done so much for religious freedom," said Robert Lifton, president of the American Jewish Congress. "The unanimous vote in the House and the all-but-unanimous vote in the Senate . . . is powerful and inconvertible testimony to the importance Americans attach to religious liberty."
The bill was championed by unlikely allies such as Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah.) President Clinton has promised to sign it.
The law is likely to have an impact on little-publicized clashes involving minority religions and state regulations.
For example, Hmongs and other Southeast Asian immigrants have protested on religious grounds when autopsies are routinely performed on victims of traffic accidents. The Amish also have contested state laws requiring bright lights on their buggies. In several states, Muslim prisoners have challenged prison regulations that limit their daily prayers.
Before passing the bill on a 97-3 vote, the Senate defeated an amendment that would have exempted prisons from its reach. Several state prosecutors had complained that prisoners would file frivolous lawsuits challenging all manner of regulations on religious grounds.
The restored "compelling interest" standard does not mean that a person making a religious claim will always win in court. For example, parents who refuse to get medical treatment for a gravely ill child because of religious objections have been prosecuted since the government has a compelling interest in the lives and health of children.