Amendment not necessary for freedom of religion

Sunday, September 19, 1999

“Istook is mistook.” Or so reads a button worn around Washington these days.

Istook, of course, is Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., author of the Religious Freedom Amendment re-introduced this past week in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Button humor is common in the nation's capital. But it struck me as uncommon to see this particular button on the lapel of a friend of mine. After all, this fellow is an evangelical Christian and political conservative — in both cases, groups that are perceived to favor the Istook amendment.

Lapel buttons inspire questions. So I asked my friend exactly why he thinks Istook is mistaken.

My friend explained that the Religious Freedom Amendment would guarantee, in the words of the amendment, “the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, or traditions on public property, including schools.”

What's wrong with that? Nothing, he says, unless “people” means government officials. Given that government officials are people, passage of this amendment might mean organized prayers and religious displays in public schools promoted by teachers, administrators and even adults from outside the schools.

Now, it's true that we don't know precisely how the Istook amendment might be applied. After all, we're still trying to figure out what the First Amendment means more than 200 years after its adoption. But my friend is afraid that the Istook language would overturn current law, allowing public-school officials and outside adults to promote their religion in the schools.

Why worry about that? Because, he says, government involvement in religion is bad for religion. He's convinced that religion loses the meaning and power of its message when it gets entangled with government. Besides, religion shouldn't be pushed on a captive audience of children. And he certainly doesn't want someone else's religion imposed on his kids if he should find himself in the minority.

It turns out that my friend is not alone. Growing numbers of evangelical Protestants now think that the Supreme Court was right to strike down state-sponsored religious practices in the schools. At the same time, however, evangelicals do want students to be free to express their faith, as long as they don't disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others.

Proponents of the Istook amendment point to the horror stories of students told they can't bring their Bibles to school or pray with their friends in the lunchroom. But when administrators do such things, they violate current law. The solution is not to change the Constitution but to enforce the law.

Ironically, Rep. Istook is re-introducing his amendment at a time when religion is very much in evidence in many public schools. Thousands of student religious clubs meet in high schools across the nation. Hundreds of school districts have adopted policies outlining the rights of students to distribute religious literature, to pray alone or in groups, and in other ways to express their faith while in school.

Of course, we still have some distance to go before every public school is a place where religious liberty is fully protected for people of all faiths or none. But we can accomplish that without amending the Constitution — a risky and unnecessary idea. As far as public schools are concerned, we already have a “Religious Freedom Amendment.” It's called the First Amendment.

My button-wearing friend is right: On this issue, Istook is indeed mistook.