Civil Liberties Lawyer Says Battle for Religious Freedom Is Far From Won

IT has been almost two decades since William Ball led the fight to protect free exercise of religion as the lead attorney in Wisconsin v. Yoder. Today, this Pennsylvania lawyer is still championing the right to practice what you preach among church minorities and religious school groups. Although the landmark Amish compulsory school attendance case still provides legal precedence in First Amendment free-exercise matters, Mr. Ball says that the battle for religious freedom is far from won.

He gives these reasons:

1. The courts have backed away from the strict standards of Yoder that required ``compelling state interest'' in order to set aside a religious claim, and have substituted a lower hurdle for the government of merely ``public interest.''

2. Many judges are dismissing religious claims as ``whimsical'' or ``eccentric.'' Although jurists tend to profess personal faith in God and religious affiliation, this commitment does not always carry over into the courtroom.

3. Courts now often subordinate religious claims in favor of tax, land, scholastic, and other government policy.

4. Claims of smaller and nonmainstream religions - particularly if they seem radical or extreme - are often not taken seriously, and overruled, by government and the courts.

``In some courts,'' Ball explains, ``free exercise is in the back of the bus.''

This veteran First Amendment lawyer calls for society to fight back to reverse the current government direction in which the ``state will tell you what public policy will be.''

``Public policy just can't override religious freedom,'' he stresses.

Ball would return the courts to legal guidelines for free exercise and religious freedom established in Yoder and earlier in 1963 in the Seventh-day Adventist case of Sherbert v. Verner.

These standards require that churches establish a ``genuine religious claim'' and prove that the disputed governmental action ``injures their exercise of rights'' under that claim. The government, on the other hand, must show that its actions have a ``compelling state interest'' and, even when they do, the state must demonstrate that there are no ``alternative'' or ``less restrictive'' means to accomplish its goals.

Ball stresses that there should be ``supreme societal interest'' to turn aside a religious claim of free exercise. ``These liberties,'' he stresses, ``are of supreme value to society.''

The civil liberties lawyer says government has a legitimate interest in protecting the safety and well-being of children. And he argues for ``reasonable'' state regulations in regard to youngsters.

``The state has a compelling state interest in the protection of human life,'' Ball explains. He insists, however, that the loss of a child under spiritual care is ``not a matter for criminal or civil liability.''

``Religion should not be the afterthought,'' he says. ``Freedom of religion is not a form of expression. It is free standing.''

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