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First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County

New Jersey Religious Freedom Bill

This information was provided as a public service by The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County. The Church did not take a position for or against the proposed legislation.

Compiled by Paul Axel-Lute of Rutgers Law Library, Newark
last updated April 11, 2004



The proposed "New Jersey Religious Freedom Act" was intended to protect the exercise of religion from burdens imposed by government, even by laws which are facially neutral towards religion.   It would have allowed such burdens only when they are both necessary to further a "compelling governmental interest" and when they are the "least restrictive means" of furthering that interest. The New Jersey bill was based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which was held unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in 1997, but which was partially replaced by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.   The New Jersey bill contained a provision stating that the act would not require correctional institutions to provide for inmates' exercise of religion if it is likely to endanger other persons or "disrupt the operation of the facility."

The federal laws

The New Jersey bill

The bill for a New Jersey Religious Freedom Act was originally introduced November 6,1997 as Assembly Bill 6 and Senate Bill 2295. An Assembly floor substitute for A.6 passed the Assembly on December 18,1997 by a vote of 51-15-6, but was not acted on by the Senate before the end of the 1996-1997 Legislature. A.903 and S.321 as introduced in the 1998-1999 Legislature and A.412 in the 2000-2001 Legislature were the same as the version of A.6 that passed the Assembly in 1997. The bill was not reintroduced in the 2002-2003 Legislature, and so far as not been reintroduced in 2004-2005.

News Articles and Commentary

"Legislators Offer Bill to Bolster Religious Freedom from State," by Joe Donahue, Star-Ledger, September 18, 1997, p.24. Groups endorsing the bill included the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey, the New Jersey Council of Churches, the Association of Jewish Federations of New Jersey, Christ Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Lutheran Church Governmental Ministry.

"Both Parties Offer Bills to Extend Religious Rights," The Record, Northern New Jersey, September 18, 1997, p.A3, states that Assemblyman Neil Cohen was proposing a bill that did not include the inmate provision.

American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey statement , November 17,1997, generally favors the bill but opposes the inmate provision.

"Judge Not", by John M.Payne , New York Times, January 11,1998, N.J. section p.15.

"What's the Complaint on Religious Freedom Act?", Letter by Marc D. Stern, New York Times, January 25, 1998, N.J. section p.17. Mr. Stern, legal director of the American Jewish Congress, helped draft the New Jersey bill. Here he replies to Prof.Payne.

Testimony on S-321 by Prof.Christopher L. Eisgruber (March 2, 1998). Including suggested amended version of bill.

"Ensuring religious freedoms," by Ron Marsico, Star-Ledger, March 3, 1998, p.17. Reports on hearing on S-321 held by Senate Judiciary Committee. Notes that New Jersey State League of Municipalities opposes the bill, saying it would impair enforcement of local zoning and fire codes.

"Religious Freedom Act would create a privileged class," by Christopher L. Eisgruber, Star-Ledger, March 26, 1998, p.20.

Other States' Religious Freedom Laws