Federal Backsliding On Religious Rights

WITH fanfare and noble words, President Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act last November before an applauding crowd of religious and civil rights leaders. Just a few months later, however, the Clinton administration's dedication to religious liberty is being called into question.

The Justice Department has filed a brief with a federal appeals court supporting a trustee's attempt to recover money that was donated to a church by a couple who subsequently declared bankruptcy.

The trustee contends that $13,450, which Bruce and Nancy Young tithed to the Crystal Evangelical Free Church in New Hope, Minn., during the year preceding their Chapter 7 filing in 1992 belongs to the couple's creditors.

A bankruptcy judge and a US district-court judge agreed with the trustee's interpretation of the federal bankruptcy code. Now the church has appealed to the US Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which will hear arguments in the case next fall. The church and its legal supporters argue that requiring the congregation to return the money would intrude on religious freedom.

Churches and religious-rights groups are closely following the case, which could be the first major judicial interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). And many advocates of religious freedom are disturbed by what they regard as a betrayal by the Clinton administration even while the president's words are still ringing in their ears. ``Our laws and institutions should not impede or hinder, but rather should protect and preserve fundamental religious liberties,'' Mr. Clinton said at the RFRA signing ceremony.

``It's astonishing that, in the first serious RFRA case, government lawyers are arguing for an interpretation that effectively guts the law,'' says Prof. Michael McConnell of the University of Chicago Law School.

RFRA resulted from an intensive lobbying effort by a wide array of religious and civil liberties groups to reverse a 1990 Supreme Court ruling. In the case, Employment Division v. Smith, the court held that a ``neutral'' statute applicable to all people was constitutional even though enforcement of the law incidentally interfered with religious practices. Under RFRA, the government must show a ``compelling interest'' to enforce any law in a way that ``substantially burdens'' the free exercise of religion.

``Taking more than $13,000 from a church clearly is a substantial burden on religious freedom,'' says Prof. Douglas Laycock of the University of Texas Law School, who has written a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the church. ``It reduces the scope of the church's evangelical and charitable mission.''

But what about the government's interest in helping creditors collect debts? While supporters of the church acknowledge government's responsibility in this regard, they contend that it isn't a ``compelling'' interest that trumps religious freedom.

Transfers of money by a debtor within 12 months of declaring bankruptcy are considered fraudulent (because intended to deprive creditors) unless the debtor obtains something of ``reasonably equivalent value'' for expenditures. Under the law, however, virtually all personal consumption by a debtor during this period -

even lavish spending on ``wine, women, and song'' - satisfies the ``value'' test.

Not even the trustee or the Justice Department denies that the Youngs' tithes, which they had faithfully paid for eight years, were motivated by sincerely held religious beliefs. Yet they argue that, in performing a Biblically prescribed act of worship, the Youngs obtained no value.

``The Justice Department is sending a message to the federal courts that RFRA is to be construed very narrowly,'' says Steven McFarland, director of the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom in Annandale, Va. ``If obtaining a few more dollars for unsecured creditors is deemed a compelling government interest that overrides religious rights, right up there with national security, then just about any interest government asserts in the future will be enough to sidestep RFRA.''

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