Emory Report

January 26, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 18

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 international corpus."

-Michael Terrazas

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