Emory to host UN official
for human rights conference
United Nations Special Rapporteur Abdelfattah Amor will visit Emory Jan.
29 to attend a one-day public conference, "International Human Rights
Standards and the United States: The Case of Religion or Belief," sponsored
by the Law and Religion and Human Rights programs.
Amor's visit to Atlanta is part of his assessment of the state of religious
liberty in the United States. The U.N. Security Council charges its Commission
on Human Rights to survey the state of such freedom worldwide, and each
year the special rapporteur's office selects a handful of countries to visit
firsthand. The U.S. is one such country this year, according to law school
professor John Witte, director of the Law and Religion Program.
"This is purely circumstantial," Witte said of the special
rapporteur's visit. "By reason of his limited resources and time, he
can only put a few countries per year under closer personal scrutiny. We
happen to be next on his schedule."
That said, Witte said the visit-and the human rights conference-come
at a time when American religious freedom "is not what it could be
and not what it was five or six years ago." Last year's U.S. Supreme
Court ruling that 1993's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was unconstitutional
could mean it's "open season on religious minorities."
The RFRA mandated that the Supreme Court and any lower federal courts
making a ruling on the First Amendment's free exercise of religion clause
must apply "strict scrutiny" to any state policy that inhibits
or prohibits religious preferences; courts would have to decide if the law
in question fulfilled a "compelling state interest" and was the
least restrictive alternative to do so. But the RFRA violated the Constitution,
the Supreme Court ruled.
"The RFRA was contrary to the test the Supreme Court itself put
in place in 1990, which said if a law is general and is neutrally applied
on its face, it is constitutional," Witte said. "That's a much
looser test, and it provided much less of a foothold for a religious minority
to receive constitutional protection."
How stricter tests could be developed that don't conflict with the Constitution,
as well as how American law on religious liberty compares with international
law, will be a few of the questions explored at the conference. Free and
open to the public, the conference features both Amor and University of
Texas law professor Douglas Laycock, who authored the RFRA. Representatives
from Atlanta organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern
Poverty Center, the Muslim Legal Defense League, the Church of Scientology
and other religious groups will provide testimony in the afternoon to Amor,
who will conduct Senate-style interviews.
Dean emeritus of the faculty of juridical, political and social sciences
at Tunis University in Tunisia, Amor was appointed special rapporteur two
years ago. His investigation of U.S. religious freedom will start at the
White House with President Bill Clinton and other senior administration
officials and will wind through Chicago, New York, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles
and Arizona. Amor himself requested that Emory host his visit to Atlanta.
"The centerpiece of the conference is to look at how international
law and American law on religious liberty can be mutually edifying,"
Witte said. "We in this country have been wrestling with these kinds
of questions, with some of the same ideological presuppositions that have
informed international norms on the subject, in a way the U.N. has never
done. With the U.N.'s provisions, there are few mechanisms for their enforcement-but
we've tried to enforce them.
"We've had some 145 Supreme Court cases on religion, 120 of those
since 1940. We've had an institutional practice that takes all those grand
principles and translates them into precepts, tries them out and finds their
deficiencies. That's very helpful to show which ones may be added to the
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