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The following is David Silverman’s written testimony against New Jersey’s proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

Defeat S.321 (RFRA)

Good Morning Senators,

I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today about why American Atheists opposes S.321, the deceptively-named Religious Liberty Protection Act.

In a nutshell, we believe it is wrong to allow a group of people to be exempt from laws to which others must adhere, based solely on their religious inclination. Exceptions to laws on an individual basis are understandable, but to allow all religious people and organizations to be exempt from laws en masse is intuitively wrong.

This bill is also in direct violation of the Constitution and the principles for which America stands. The Bill’s supporters will tell you that the RFRA’s predecessor, the RLPA, was struck down because it exceeded Congressional authority, and this is true. But what is also true is the comment from Justice John Paul Stevens:
“If the historic landmark … happened to be a museum or an art gallery owned by an atheist, it would not be eligible for an exemption ... Because the landmark is owned by the Catholic Church, it is claimed that RLPA gives its owner a federal statutory entitlement to an exemption from a generally applicable, neutral civil law… The statute has provided the Church with a legal weapon that no atheist or agnostic can obtain. This governmental preference for religion, as opposed to irreligion, is forbidden by the First Amendment...”
So the legality of the RFRA is clearly questionable. But I don’t want to sit here and talk to you about the letter of the law. I’m not a lawyer. The idea I want to get across is why giving religions special rights en masse, as opposed to a case-by-case basis as it is today, is the wrong idea for everyone, be they Atheist, Christian, Moslem, or Jew.

To that end I’m going to rely on the advice my father once gave me, which was simply to learn from other people’s mistakes, and to defend your points with cold, hard facts.

So let’s first look at the facts in Belmont Massachusetts, where the Mormons are building a 70,000 square foot church in a residential neighborhood. The church will sit at the top of a hill, and tower over its neighbors’ houses with huge spires reaching far above the trees. The neighborhood is not zoned for such massive structures, and the residents (of all faiths) have made it clear that they don’t want it there. However, due to an ordinance similar to the RFRA, the church can ignore zoning laws and build anything they wish, and they are.

Why would you take away the rights of citizens to stop a massive structure from being erected in their back yards? How good is it for the community when anyone, be they Catholics, Moonies or Scientologists can erect a temple in the middle of a housing complex without regard to the wishes of the neighborhood? This is not fantasy, but clear reality in Massachusetts. Will it be reality here as well?

Let’s take another dose of reality from California, where a landlord is pushing for the RFRA because she wants to refuse to rent to an unmarried heterosexual couple, on the grounds that it violates her religious rights to associate with people who “live in sin”. Imagine the ramifications of this scenario. Suddenly, everyone, be they Atheist, Christian, Moslem, or Jew, will be faced with the fact that they can legally be refused an apartment if the renter disagrees with their religious views or lifestyle choice.

Lawsuits will flood the system, as tenants sue landlords, neighbors sue churches, and workers sue employers for special rights. This would be especially prevalent in the public sector, where Federal and State employees, including school teachers and emergency workers, would be able to sue for special breaks and prayer areas. Is this the rambling of a paranoid Atheist? No, it is one of the reasons given by the Maryland State Assembly for wisely refusing to let this bill out of committee.

But we’re not just talking about zoning violations, rental discrimination, or multitudes of lawsuits. In Florida the Church of Scientology is trying to hide behind that state’s RFRA against prosecution in the negligent death of one of its members.

Cold, Hard Facts, with no double-talk. Different states, same law. Different problems, same mistake. One lesson. The laws are there for a reason.

The Constitution is to be defended not just because it is the Constitution, but because it is right. “Equal justice under the law” is morally and ethically correct. I invite you now to support all your constituents, believer or Atheist, by treating them equally under the law and stopping the RFRA.

Thank you for your attention.

David Silverman
NJ State Director, American Atheists, Inc.

American Atheists is a 30 year-old nationwide non-profit organization by and for the nonreligious community. Permission for re-publication with authorship and organizational credit is granted

Further information on RFRA and RLPA is available on FlashLine.

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.