Supporters of Religious Freedom Amendment work to keep bill alive

Wednesday, June 10, 1998

Despite a resounding defeat by the U.S. House of Representatives of the Religious Freedom Amendment, Christian conservatives and at least one U.S. senator have vowed to continue to push for the amendment.

The proposed amendment would guarantee government-sponsored school prayer and remove constitutional barriers to funding religious schools with tax dollars.

As soon as the Religious Freedom Amendment failed to garner a super majority of the House late last week, the Christian Coalition announced it would not give up pressuring Congress to “expand and restore religious liberty in America.” The proposed amendment, introduced by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., fell 61 votes short of the two-thirds majority of voting members necessary to approve a constitutional amendment. Amendments also require two-thirds approval in the Senate and ratification by 38 states.

The Christian Coalition, which spent more than a half-million dollars on an intense lobbying campaign for Istook's amendment, has vowed the same support for an identical amendment just introduced in the Senate by another Oklahoma lawmaker.

Republican Sen. James Inhofe introduced a bill proposing an amendment to the Constitution “restoring religious freedom.”

The Inhofe bill reads: “To secure the right of the people to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Neither the United States nor any state shall establish any official religion, but the right of the people 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.”

Like Istook, Inhofe claims the proposed amendment is needed to restore the founders' view of religion's role in public life. Inhofe and others argue that the establishment clause of the First Amendment was never meant to bar public religious expression, but was merely intended to prevent the government from anointing an official religion.

“We seek to permit voluntary school prayer and religious expression on public property in accord with what we believe is absolutely consistent with the intent of the First Amendment,” Inhofe said. “It is unfortunate that such a new amendment to the Constitution is necessary. But unelected judges over the years have sought to change the meaning of the First Amendment, by-passing the public and its elected representatives. The Religious Freedom Amendment is the only way to change it back.”

Public school students, however, may now pray, read the Bible and engage in religious speech at school as long as they do so in a reasonable time, place and manner, without disrupting other students and without being encouraged by school officials. Many House members voting against the bill decried supporters' claims of restoring religious freedom.

“Both sides claim to be on the side of the righteous,” said Rep. Amo Houghton, R-N.Y. “People are screaming about getting government off our backs, but they turn and have government tell our children how to pray.”

Besides allowing government-sponsored school prayer, the 86-word amendment would explicitly acknowledge God in the Constitution for the first time, as well as permit religious symbols on public property, such as a display of the Ten Commandments in a courtroom. It would also allow federal money for private religious schools and religious-based drug treatment programs.

Arne Owens, spokesman for the Christian Coalition, said he was not sure the amendment will amass greater support in the Senate than it did in the House.

“I can't really tell how much support it will get in the Senate,” he said. “We received the momentum of a majority vote in the House, but we still must come up with some language that meets the concerns of some members and allows us to garner their support.”

One of the concerns raised in last week's debate centered on the amendment's explicit acknowledgment of God. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., suggested altering the amendment's language to read: “To secure the right of the people to acknowledge their religion.” His proposed change, however, was defeated.

Owens said the Christian Coalition would not support striking God from the proposed amendment. “It is difficult for me, at this stage, to say what language could be arrived at to garner more support,” he said.

Even with the defeat of the amendment in the House, Owens said just having the vote provides momentum for other religious legislation, such as protecting the display of the Ten Commandments in government buildings.

“We believe that our efforts in supporting the Religious Freedom Amendment will make it easier for Congress to pass legislative prescriptions for the hostile climate the courts have created against the expression of religious beliefs in the public square,” Owens said.

Rob Boston, assistant communications director of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the Senate would not consider Inhofe's bill anytime soon.

“It makes no sense to introduce an amendment in the Senate shortly after it was overwhelmingly defeated in the House,” Boston said. “The GOP leadership is not taking this thing seriously. I mean, where was Speaker [Newt] Gingrich during last week's debate? He was not even on the floor. I think the amendment will be considered again in a few years.”

Boston also criticized the Christian Coalition's claim about momentum as an effort “to perfume the skunk” in the face of a stinging defeat.

“The fact is the amendment was defeated by a GOP Congress by a margin much wider than the last vote on a similar amendment in 1971,” he said.