Religious Freedom [sic] Amendment

Conservatives in Congress sought to open a Pandora's box on March 4, 1998, when the House Judiciary Committee voted sixteen to eleven to approve Representative Ernest lstook's (Republican-Oklahoma) so-called Religious Freedom Amendment. All committee Republicans voted for the measure, while all Democrats voted against it.

The proposed amendment (not to be confused with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the widely supported bipartisan law ruled unconstitutional on technical grounds by the Supreme Court in June 1997) would authorize organized group religious devotions in public school classrooms, at graduation ceremonies, and at other public venues and is intended to authorize tax support for sectarian private schools and other institutions. The proposed amendment's text reads:

To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Neither the United States nor any state shall establish any official religion, but the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. Neither the United States nor any state shall require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, prescribe school prayers, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion.
That the proposed amendment is indeed a piece of mischief was made clear when the committee Republicans defeated a Democratic substitute containing the precise language of the First Amendment.

The best that can be said of the proposal is that it is not needed. The amendment would not advance religious freedom but would subject local religious minorities--- which vary from community to community and from school to school--- to various impositions by aggressive religious majorities or pluralities. Countless communities and classrooms would be disrupted by religious conflicts and resentments. Not only would the amendment impact public schools but it would also allow religious displays and cr'eches on public property.

Perhaps the most insidious feature of the proposed amendment is the clause about not "deny[ing] equal access to a benefit on account of religion," apparently added to secure the support of Judiciary Committee Chair Henry Hyde (Republican-Illinois), a Catholic who is strongly committed to getting tax support for sectarian schools through vouchers but who seems to be indifferent to public school prayer. The First Amendment barrier to vouchers would be weakened or possibly destroyed by the Istook amendment if it were passed.

Of course, the amendment is not likely to be approved. It is not likely to be passed by the necessary two-thirds vote in the House, though it is scheduled for a vote this spring, and there is little sentiment for it in the Senate. Why the strong push, then, for a vote in the House? So that Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition can use the roll call vote to attack opponents of the measure in its planned multimillion-dollar TV, ad, and voter guide political campaign this coming fall.

Organizations supporting church-state separation and real religious freedom are asking citizens to urge their Congress members to vote against the Istook amendment.

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