The House Judiciary Committee approved the Religious Freedom Amendment
on 1998-MAR-4. The vote was 16 to 11. The next step will be a vote in the House. If the
same ratio persists there, then the bill will be defeated. A 2/3 majority is required for
it to pass on to the Senate. We would expect a lower ratio in the Senate.
Rep. Istook has created a questionnaire on his Web site about the proposed amendment.
1 All are invited to participate. Some individuals
have found the questions in this survey to be highly biased, heavily
loaded, and difficult to answer. One web site comments on problems with
this survey 2
In the House, Rep. Jack Kingston (R GA) and Rep Ernest Istook (R OK) discussed recent
court decision that they feel stifle religious expression and thus create the need for the
Istook amendment. Rep. Kingston commented: "There is no doubt in my mind that
there is a special place in hell for a number of federal court judges, as I am sure there
will be for members of Congress." This provoked some responses from religious
Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of the Churches
of Christ in the USA said that this comment "tells us precisely what we can
expect - if the amendment is enacted - intolerance. incivility and nastiness."
Baptist Joint Committee executive director James M Dunn said: "Let's
let God separate the righteous from the damned, the sheep from the goats. Last time I
checked, it wasn't in the job description of a member of congress."
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism said
that Kingston's remarks will be typical of "the angry, divisive, sectarian
debates that will follow passage of this Amendment."
Rep. Kingston indicated that he made the comment in jest.
Rabbi Arthur Starr of Temple Adath Yesherun of Manchester, NH was quoted in a
New Hampshire newspaper on 1998-JUN-1 as opposing the bill. "Many Americans are
probably not even aware of it, but right now Congress is quietly laboring to take away our
country's heritage of religious liberty and church-state separation." Some of
"The First Amendment...should be treated with special care. Yet Congress is
treating it like a first draft."
The "'Religious Freedom Amendment'...would foster religious tyranny."
"It would allow three things:"
"Authorize official religious worship in public schools, with no provision made
for those students who do not want to take part..."
"Allow, and perhaps require government at all levels to give taxpayer funds to
religious groups. All Americans would be forced to pay what are essentially
"Encourage government to 'recognize . . . religious beliefs, heritage or
traditions' a concept so vague it could mean almost anything."
"Utah could declare itself officially Mormon; Oklahoma could authorize a
nativity scene in the school auditoriums; Alabama could mandate the posting of
Scripture on courtroom walls. In deciding whose symbols or religious messages
will be seen or heard, majority religions will prevail - and we have seen in
too many places around the world, what happens when religious minorities rebel
against the majority!"
The House bill was defeated on 1998-JUN-4 at about 5:45 PM ET. The majority were in
favor (224 vs. 203 with 7 abstentions). But a 2/3 majority is needed in order to pass a
proposed constitutional amendment. The issue is dead for a while, in the House.
The vote was considered a victory for its supporters; no similar bill had
made it this far through the legislative process since the early
On 1998-JUN-4, the same day that the House bill was defeated, Senator Inhofe
(R-OK) proposed a bill in the Senate which is almost identical to the last wording of the
Istook Amendment. It has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee for
review. No action was taken during this term. The general perception is that the members
of the Senate are less favorable to this type of constitutional amendment than were the
members of the House.
Rep. Istook reintroduced the proposed constitutional amendment in 1999-SEP.
It is called the "Religious Freedom Amendment," HJ. Res. 66.
Some observers feel that the bill may receive greater support this time. There
is a growing feeling in the country that school violence is out of control and
that compulsory school prayer is needed.
AANEWS reported on 2001-NOV-7 that supporters of the Istook amendment "are
betting that in the wake of the September-11
terrorist attacks, the mood of the nation has shifted regarding more
overt religious expression in the public square. They point to efforts
throughout the country to display religious slogans such as 'In God We Trust' in
the nation's schools, or display the Ten Commandments in public buildings."6
AANEWS reported the NOV-7 comments of Michael Collins, reporter for the Scripps
Howard News Service reporter: "Even now, 'God Bless America' are fighting
words for some. [Istook's legislation is evidence of] "simple declarations of
patriotism and faith in a time of national tragedy. [There is opposition,
though, as] across America, civil libertarians are concerned that the line
separating church and state has been dangerously blurred -- and in some cases
blatantly crossed -- in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks." 6
Rep. Istook introduced a bill similar to past years' constitutional
amendments on 2001-DEC-20. It is now renamed "Religious Speech Amendment."
The 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, and traditions on public property,
including schools, shall not be infringed.
-- The United States and the States shall not compose school prayers,
nor require any person to join in prayer or other religious
Istook has dropped some of the text in his earlier bills. They had stated
that the government of the U.S. and of the states could not "discriminate
against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion."
Rep. Istook said: "Even though it's Christmas, and is a critical time for our
country, Americans are confused and upset by the religious intolerance. There's
widespread confusion, thanks to conflicting court rulings, fear of legal costs,
and the intolerant zealots who claim they are 'offended' when freedom of speech
Istook added that his bill "will stop the harassment and intimidation of those
lawsuits, and free the American people to honor and respect God in public
The constitutional amendment was introduced as H.J. Res. 81. It has 74
The amendment has been promoted as a vehicle for permitting school prayer. However, the
effects of such a change to the US constitution are far-reaching. The People For the
American Way has concluded that, under the amendment, the following activities would
The public school day could begin with a student delivering a sectarian prayer over the
Individual teachers could select a student to read a prayer.
Coaches or members of athletic teams could recite a prayer or give a sermon before a
Students could invite a member of the clergy to lead the student body in a prayer at
compulsory school assemblies.
Students of majority faiths would be able to set the religious agenda for the entire
Public officials, judges, military offices, government employers etc. could proselytize
to employees under their jurisdiction.
Congress could pass a law declaring the US to be a "Christian nation".
Religious conflicts would be aggravated as various religious groups competed with each
other to have their religious symbols given prominence on public property.
The phrase "not require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity
sounds comforting. But students will be forced between two options: to join in a prayer
that violates their conscience or to ask to leave the room until the prayer is over. The
author of this essay was brought up in a Canadian school where this was practiced. Those
students from minority religions who were excused were terribly harassed and frequently
physically attacked by their fellow students. By emphasizing religious
differences in the student body, harrassment of religious minorities
and school violence might
The phrase stating that the government shall not "discriminate against
religion" This raises the question whether a person or group could engage in
sexist, racist or homophobic activities and be immune from
prosecution because they claimed that their harassment was based on religious beliefs.
The phrase "deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion"
would open up the public coffers and fund all types of programs by religious groups. On
the other hand, it could conceivably be used to promotesame-sex marriages and allow gays and lesbians to obtain all of the many hundreds of benefits of married people.