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Religion bill not getting praise

(ran SS edition of Metro & State, ET edition of Tampa & State)

County officials fear legislation, intended to protect religious freedoms, will undermine local control over zoning and environmental rules.

County commissioners concede that, at first glance, someone might wonder why they're against the Religious Liberty Protection Act, a measure the U.S. House passed last month that broadens the rights people have to practice their faith.

The bill, now in the Senate, has the support of both U.S. representatives Mike Bilarakis, R-Palm Harbor, and C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach, as well as President Clinton and organizations representing all the major religions.

Freedom of religion is right up there with mom and apple pie, right?

County and city officials across the country, however, say the proposed legislation goes too far. They say the bill invites lawsuits challenging things such as zoning and environmental ordinances by arguing the codes restrict religious freedom.

In other cases, someone could use their religious beliefs to discriminate against homosexual tenants or job applicants, say critics of the act.

On Tuesday, county commissioners passed a resolution urging Florida Sens. Bob Graham and Connie Mack to oppose the bill.

"I'm very supportive of religious institutions but I am concerned with its impact" on local governments, said Commissioner Karen Seel, who brought the issue in front of the board. "This just seems like a pre-emption of local rights."

The bill would require local governments to show that they have a "compelling" interest to enforce their rules on religious organizations. That threshold could keep the county from enforcing zoning decisions, such as building height restrictions, or regulations such as the licensing of day care centers run by churches, said Jim Bennett, chief assistant county attorney.

"It's arguable that we wouldn't be able to enforce building codes," Bennett said. "The language that they're using (in the act) is really quite sweeping."

Brent Walker, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee, a Washington D.C. lobby group, says the bill forces local governments to prove they have a compelling reason to regulate someone's beliefs.

"It's important to protect religious freedom _ it's the freedom upon which all other freedoms are based," Walker said.

Congressional testimony showed that the area where violations of religious freedom were most prevalent was in the area of zoning codes, Walker said.

Some of the testimony in front of the House was from people who told of local governments not allowing prayer groups to meet in private homes or students that were not allowed to practice their beliefs at school.

"Witness after witness testified about discriminatory procedures," Walker said.

But Jeff Arnold, a lobbyist with the National Association of Counties, says he doesn't believe House members thought of all the consequences before they voted for the bill.

"The sorts of things they're trying to protect are fundamentally good things," Arnold said.

Arnold says the association of counties is not opposing the concept of religious liberties, but it doesn't want the act to undermine local government's right to regulate zoning and land use matters.

"We feel that most churches and individuals should comply with the same laws as everyone else," Arnold said. "The bill creates a standard that we think is very difficult for us to overcome."