WASHINGTON — A YEAR ago this week the United States Supreme Court astounded many lawyers and religious groups by weakening substantially the protection that the US Constitution affords to the free exercise of religion. A year later a coalition of religious and civil-liberties groups is trying to get Congress to overturn the court ruling. But this year the effort by this Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion is threatened by a controversy over abortion.
As a result, whether Congress will approve the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, expected to be reintroduced shortly, may be in question.
For 27 years until last April's court decision, government had been required to prove a "compelling" reason before impeding the free exercise of religion, a protection rooted in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
In last year's ruling the court majority said that such a strict standard of protection was a "luxury" that the US no longer could afford when it sought to act in a way that would affect religious practices.
Last year's prime congressional sponsors of the bill intended to overturn this ruling reflected a broad political spectrum, both liberal and conservative.
But this year key congressional conservatives - including Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, a principal sponsor of last year's proposal - are having second thoughts as a result of opposition by the influential National Right to Life Committee and some other anti-abortion organizations.
These organizations want the bill amended so that it cannot ever be used as a legal basis for permitting abortions. Representative Hyde is among members believed to be insisting on a satisfactory amendment before they support the bill this year.
THIS week both conservatives outside Congress and Rep. Stephen Solarz (D) of New York, one of last year's prime House sponsors, are trying to draft one or more compromises that all sides can support. Already there have been "many attempts to solve" the abortion issue, says one informed source, so far without success.
While negotiations continue, many on Capitol Hill are awaiting the outcome, including Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, a prime Senate sponsor last year. Ultimately Senator Biden is expected to introduce the Senate measure this year.
The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights is also watching and waiting: It has still to schedule hearings on the yet-to-be-introduced measure.
"It's important ... to separate the labels from the legal effect," says Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee.
Mr. Johnson says that although the measure is labeled the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, "what's really being suggested here is to create a new statutory basis for free exercise [of religion] claim."
If the Supreme Court should repeal Roe v. Wade, which permits legal abortions in the US, Mr. Johnson says that several religious groups "fully intend" to fall back upon the authority of Religious Freedom Restoration Act, if it is passed, as legalizing abortion.
"Our position is that we're opposed to the bill unless it excludes these kinds of claims," he says. "I don't believe that this bill could be passed" without such an amendment.
Supporters of the bill say they are seeking only to restore the right to practice religion freely, and that they have no intention of using the measure, if it becomes law, to support the legality of abortion.
"It's an overreaction on these people's part," says an aide to one member of Congress who supports the measure.
Mark Chopko, general counsel of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, disagrees: "We believe that the concern is not far-fetched," he says. At the same time, Mr. Chopko says that "we want to be supportive of legislative remedies" to last year's Supreme Court decision.