Congressional committee approves Religious Freedom Amendment

Wednesday, March 4, 1998

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee has approved a constitutional amendment supporters claim will protect religious expression in public places from federal and state court rulings they see as hostile to religion.

The committee, along party lines, voted 16-11 on March 4 to set the stage for a full House vote sometime this spring on the Religious Freedom Amendment. Committee Democrats proposed changes to the wording of the amendment-all of which were defeated.

The amendment, introduced last year by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., 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, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion.”

Elliot Mincberg, legal director of People for the American Way, a Washington-based civil-rights group that opposes the amendment, said he was not surprised by the committee's action.

“The vote today was totally expected and does nothing more than set the stage for a battle in the House that will be important,” Mincberg said. “What has to be done is to explain to the large number of House members that are undecided about the amendment that it is really not needed.

“It is totally wrong and indeed backwards to suggest that courts have misinterpreted the First Amendment. What needs to be done is to better educate and explain to people what their rights are under the First Amendment.”

When Republicans took control of the House more than three years ago, Speaker Newt Gingrich promised conservative religious groups, like the Christian Coalition, a vote on a constitutional amendment to protect religious expression in public places, like schools.

The Christian Coalition argues that the First Amendment has been misinterpreted by the state and federal courts and therefore a new amendment is needed to make sure people can recognize God in public and that schools can sponsor student prayer.

Colby May, director for the office of government affairs at the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian legal and educational organization, praised the amendment and decried its opponents.

“We believe the amendment is a good thing and we support passage of the measure,” May said. “The amendment would prevent government from suppressing religious expression whenever it occurs on public property and it makes clear that government cannot exclude religious organizations from participating in government funded programs — like state-funded welfare programs.

“I think opponents like the [the American Civil Liberties Union] and People for the American Way have closed their eyes to 30 years of jurisprudence that has made clear religious speech remains a second-class speech. It appears that those groups are bent on sanitizing religious symbols from public places.”

Supporters of the amendment, including May, argue that the Supreme Court's prayer cases — which concluded that school-sponsored prayers subvert the First Amendment's separation of church and state principle — have been used by lower courts to remove religious expression from public places.

May says cases of removing the Ten Commandments, nativity scenes and crosses from public places as evidence that the First Amendment has been misconstrued to suppress religious expression. He also cites as evidence cases in Ohio and Wisconsin where religious schools have been denied state money for educating children.

Opponents of the amendment say it will not accomplish what supporters hope it will — that is school-sponsored prayer — and that it is not actually needed.

“There is no need for that amendment because it is a scam,” Douglass Laycock, a University of Texas law professor and religious-liberty scholar, said. “The supporters want a school-prayer amendment, but since they could not write one, they came up with this ball of mush and hope it is interpreted as guaranteeing school-sponsored prayer.”

Courts generally have found student-initiated religious expression does not necessarily mean the school endorses or supports religious actions. Federal and state courts have regularly ruled that students can form Bible clubs, hold religious discussions with peers during school hours, as well as express religious beliefs in art work, homework and reports.

Rob Boston, assistant communications director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that the supporters of the Religious Freedom Amendment have misled citizens about the impact of court decisions involving religious expression in public places.

“This whole process has become a political football,” he said. “The aim of the Christian Coalition and other supporters is not to pass the amendment, but to get a vote in the House and then attack every House member who votes against it as being anti-God. From our perspective it is discouraging to see the Bill of Rights being manipulated like this.”

Boston said the amendment erodes the wall of separation of church and state and would allow federal and state money to be used for an array of religious purposes. School-voucher programs that allow taxpayer money to be used for student education at religious schools have been found to violate the separation of church and state by at least two different states. If the Religious Freedom Amendment were added to the Constitution, Boston claimed it would be very hard for courts to deny funding to religious schools.

Arne Owens, director of communications for the Christian Coalition, said the amendment does not favor religion but nullifies judicial misunderstandings of the First Amendment.

“There is real discrimination against people of faith of this country,” Owens said. “We have seen restrictions placed on religious persons in every state because of Supreme Court decisions that have misinterpreted the intent of our founding fathers.”

Owens said a recent federal court decision in Alabama is proof of judicial interference with religious beliefs. In October a federal judge ordered officials in DeKalb County to cease school-sponsored prayer and other religious activities. U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent, however, made clear his injunction was not a ban against student-initiated religious activity.

“If federal judges throughout the country are actually reading the First Amendment as allowing religious expression in schools, then why did a federal district judge in Alabama bar students from praying?” Owens asked. “That judge has sent prayer monitors into schools and that is outright unconstitutional.”

Owens said that as long as judicial interpretation of the First Amendment continues to be implemented as “a policy of religious exclusion,” the Christian Coalition will keep pressure on Congress to pass the amendment.