October 6, 1998
by Stephen McClurg
This November, Alabama citizens will get a chance to vote on the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment (ARFA). As religious freedom is already granted by the Bill of Rights and Alabama's Constitution, what is this barely publicized amendment about? In general, the bill states that if an individual claims ANY burden on his religious freedom, it is the government's (and therefore the taxpayers') job to "demonstrate that it has a compelling interest" in the burdening regulation and to use the "least restrictive means" possible in furthering that interest.
Last year, a similar federal law was struck down by the Supreme Court. The main difference between that law and the proposed Alabama law is that the ARFA is so incredibly broad. Instead of a "substantial" burden, the ARFA is open to any burden, leaving even neutral (land use, health, zoning) laws and historic provisions as possible burdens. These neutral laws are meant to apply to all citizens equally, but under the ARFA it would be possible for these laws to be bypassed by any religious organization (which would include the Salvation Army, warlocks, sects of Christianity that use rattlesnake in worship, etc.).
On September 23, the Historic Mobile Preservation Society (HMPS) presented a panel discussion about the effects the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment could have on the past and present statewide efforts in historic preservation. Considering that zoning laws and historic legislation could become burdensome and that the "compelling interest" of the government would have to be brought to court after the fact, the HMPS enumerated many potential problems with this proposed legislation. They are not the only group that is worried. Representatives from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Historic Mobile Development Commission, Alabama Preservation Alliance, and the Alabama Historical Commission all raised concerns about the passing of the ARFA.
The only arguments for the bill were given by Mark Wilkerson of the Alabama Attorney's Office. He feels there will not be as many problems as voiced with ARFA because "we can count on the common sense of our judges" in interpreting the cases resulting from the proposed amendment.
Robert Edington of the Historic Mobile Preservation Society said, "The Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment goes against prior legislation that is part of the U.S. and Alabama Constitutions in which no favoritism should be shown to any group of American citizens."
He also said, "The state is not required to make exception for religion, but the laws are occasionally bent for religious groups." Mr. Edington also made it clear that none of the groups speaking against the ARFA were against religious freedom, they just feel that it is already well protected under the Bill of Rights and the Alabama state constitution.
Laura Nelson of the National Trust for Historic Preservation stated that "Historic preservation itself has never really warranted a compelling interest, so we also have to look at other areas that have." She brought up the fact that in other states where similar legislation has passed, lawsuits concerning child abuse and non-payment of child support, dress codes, and prisons have all been brought to court. "What worries the National Trust," she said, "is that the proposed Alabama amendment is much broader than previous legislation and is not limited to a substantial burden." She also mentioned that "churches could possibly lose their equal access to money [if they alter their property] that is available to them as historical building owners."
Mobile's local legislators were asked to join the discussion, but all of them declined. When asked about this, Elizabeth Brown (AHC) said, "How can anybody be against religious freedom in an election year?" It was expressed by the panel that the ARFA is misnamed and misleading. The Alabama Preservation Alliance's representative, Brandon Brazil, said "in the two seconds that voters are voting, all they are going to see is the title of the amendment. Who's going to vote against religious freedom? Nobody. And that is why, considering the implication of this proposed piece of legislation, that we feel it is misnamed."
The Historic Mobile Preservation Society has adopted a resolution to "reject the so-called Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment and urges all voters in Alabama to vote against the Act in the November election."
If you would like more information or a copy of the ARFA, write to the Alabama Preservation Alliance at P.O. Box 2228, Montgomery, AL 36102-2228.