House committee to vote on Religious Freedom Amendment

Monday, March 2, 1998

Rep. Ernest Ist...
Photo by AP
Rep. Ernest Istook

A constitutional amendment aimed at protecting religious expression in public places, like schools, is scheduled for a vote this week in a U.S. House committee.

The House Judiciary Committee is expected to vote tomorrow on the Religious Freedom Amendment, introduced last year by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla.

Supporters of the proposed amendment, which include 150 co-sponsors in the House, claim that federal court decisions regarding prayer in public schools have allowed public religious expression to be curtailed.

The amendment 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.”

Charles Canady, R-Fla., one of the amendment's sponsors, claims it is essential “to restore religious freedom” to American citizens.

“The Supreme Court's rhetorical establishment of a 'high and impregnable' wall of separation of church and state has led courts and public officials to act as though the First Amendment requires rather than prohibits discrimination against religious expression and exercise,” said Canady.

“This misunderstanding is of constitutional proportions and thus a constitutional amendment is the most comprehensive means to remedy it.”

Several religious conservative groups suggest that ever since the Supreme Court's 1960 decisions which said state-sponsored prayer in public schools subverted the separation of the church and state that government has actually responded with hostility toward religious expression in public places.

Both the Christian Coalition and The Family Research Council point to lawsuits in Alabama as examples of judicial interference with religious expression.

Last year a federal judge concluded that a state-prayer law violated the separation of church and state and ordered officials in DeKalb County to cease leading prayer in public schools. Another Alabama case involves a suit filed by parents of three Jewish students claiming the students were forced to participate in Christian prayer.

Proponents of the amendment, however, note that the Supreme Court decisions of the 1960s did not bar student-initiated prayer. Indeed federal courts have regularly stated that students can form Bible clubs, hold religious discussions with peers during school hours, as well as express their religious proclivities in art work, homework and reports.

Elliot Mincberg, legal director of People for the American Way, a Washington-based civil-rights group, said that the Religious Freedom Amendment is not needed but is simply a political favor to groups like the Christian Coalition.

“It is absolutely false for lawmakers and the Christian Coalition to suggest that the Religious Freedom Amendment is needed,” said Mincberg. “We already have one, called the First Amendment, which has done an incredible job of making sure government does not create laws establishing religion and making sure government does not interfere with religious practices.”

Mincberg said he expects the House committee to approve the amendment because House Speaker Gingrich three years ago promised the Christian Coalition that such a bill would come up for a full House vote.

Rob Boston, assistant director of communications for the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the amendment is being used as means to “cut back the court's ability to read the Establishment clause broadly.”

If the amendment were to become reality, Boston said the First Amendment's concept of separation of church and state would be eviscerated.

Terri Schroeder, church-state legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that even though the bill has a long list of supporters there are still not enough votes to get the amendment out of the House.

“Amending the Constitution is serious business,” she said. “A majority of the House members realize that a few instances where courts have not supported certain religious expression does not amount to a need to amend the Constitution.”

A constitutional amendment must pass by two-thirds in the House and Senate and then be ratified by three-fourths of the states.