The Istook Constitutional
Amendment on Religious Freedom
Activity during 1995 &1996
The House of Representatives' Constitution Subcommittee held field hearings on a
constitutional amendment during mid-1995. The Senate Judiciary Committee convened
hearings on religious liberty in the US during the fall.
A working group was formed, consisting of a number of very conservative Christian
groups: American Center for Law and Justice, Christian Coalition, Concerned Women for
America, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Southern Baptist Convention,
and the Traditional Values Coalition. They proposed a draft "Religious
Equality Amendment" to the Constitution which read:
Section I: Neither the United States nor any State shall abridge the freedom of
any person or group, including students in public schools, to engage in prayer or other
religious expression in circumstances in which expression of a non-religious character
would be permitted; nor deny benefits to or otherwise discriminate against any person or
group on account of the religious character of their speech, ideas, motivations, or
Section II: Nothing in the Constitution shall be construed to forbid the United
States or any State to give public or ceremonial accommodation to the religious heritage,
beliefs, or traditions of its people.
Section III: The exercise, by the people, of any freedoms under the First
Amendment or under this Amendment shall not constitute an establishment of religion.
Three constitutional amendments were been proposed:
In late 1995, Representative Henry Hyde (R-IL) brought his "religious equality"
constitutional amendment to the House of Representatives (H.J. Res. 121;
1995-NOV-15) . Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced Hyde's proposal into the Senate
Res. 45; 1995-DEC-21). It was supported by at least three conservative Christian groups: National
Association of Evangelicals, Family Research Council, and the Christian Legal Society.
The text read:
"Neither the United States nor any State shall deny benefits to or otherwise
discriminate against any private person or group on account of religious expression,
belief, or identity; nor shall the prohibition on laws respecting an establishment of
religion be construed to require discrimination against anyone on account of their
Representative Ernest Istook (R-OK) introduced his "Religious Liberties"
amendment on 1995-NOV-28. It read:
"Nothing in this Constitution shall prohibit acknowledgments of the religious
heritage, beliefs, or traditions of the people, or prohibit student-sponsored prayer in
public schools. Neither the United States nor any State shall compose any official prayer
or compel joining in prayer, or discriminate against religious expression or belief."
In 1996-JUL, Representative Dick Armey (R-TX) introduced a third proposal, called a
"Religious Freedom Amendment". Because of a lack of consensus,
opposition from moderate Republicans, concern from civil liberty groups and opposition
from some religious organizations, no further action was taken.
Many groups commented on the original Istook amendment proposal of 1995-NOV-28:
On 1995-NOV-30, Tommy P. Baer, international president of B'nai B'rith stated:"We
believe in religion and we believe in the importance of prayer. What we don't believe in
is government-sponsored religion expressed in public places...As a minority, we have felt
the pain of being the outsider. No one -- especially school children -- should be made to
feel inferior because they do not believe in the religion of the majority...For over 200
years the First Amendment has protected our freedoms. This proposed amendment would
protect the rights of the majority while hurting the rights of the minority."
During 1996-MAR, Lois Goldrich, Director of Public Affairs for the United Synagogue
of Conservative Judaism issued a Position
Paper which quoted various of their officials as saying, in part:"These
amendments represent a sweeping attempt to rewrite the religion clauses of the First
Amendment and constitute an encroachment on the principle of church-state separation. If
passed, they would amend the Bill of Rights for the first time in history... the amendment
would in fact require that the government fund religious and secular activities
The 1996-MAY/JUN "Washington
Memo" of the Mennonite Central Committee was authored by Karl S. Shelly
and titled: "How Government Promotion of Religion Can Undermine Religious
Liberty". He stated, in part: "Religious freedom has flourished in the
United States in large part because of the Constitution's First Amendment... Mennonites,
as a minority denomination with some unpopular beliefs, have particularly benefited from
In early 1997, the proposed Istook amendment was re-worded to read:
"To secure the people's right to acknowledge God: The right to pray or acknowledge
religious belief, heritage or tradition on public property, including public schools,
shall not be infringed. The government shall not compel joining in prayer, initiate or
compose school prayers, discriminate against or deny a benefit on account of religion.
The Christian Coalition and some other conservative Christian groups supported
the amendment. During the week of 1997-MAR-2, Rep. Istook visited the National
Association of Evangelicals at their Orlando convention in an effort to seek their
support. He had a letter of support from Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. But the NAE
initially rejected his request. Forest Montgomery, the Association's counsel declared: "According
to my faith, there is no way I can love my neighbor and support majoritarian legislation
that requires Jewish kids to recite Christian prayers....It is wrong, legally and
The Christian Legal Society is a Washington DC based group of conservative
Christian lawyers. Their spokesperson, Steven McFarland, said: "The Istook
amendment has sex appeal, and for those with a soundbite mentality, a roll-call vote on
God sounds great...But do we really want to let government choose a favorite religion?
When Caesar gets into the business of doing anything for religion, it prostitutes the
faith, it co-opts the church. No thank you." He predicted that if Southern
Baptists and other Evangelicals oppose the amendment while the Christian Coalition and
other Christian groups promote it, then "it's going to get ugly."
Rep. Istook held a news conference on 1997-MAR-24. He indicated that he planed to
introduce a bill proposing a amendment after Congress returns from its 1997 Easter recess.
He said that the purpose of the amendment "is to restore the protection of our
precious religious freedoms and liberties, which have been eroded by a steady onslaught of
court decisions, especially during the past 35 years." Rep. Istook highlighted a
report by the Office of Public Affairs of The Rutherford Institute which is
critical of President Clinton's directive on school prayer. (The Rutherford Institute is a
Christian legal group that defends what it believes to be infringements on freedom of
religion). He was accompanied by Ellen Pearson and her daughter Audrey. 9 years ago,
Audrey was prohibited from reading her Bible during 90 minute school bus trips to and from
her public school in Dumfries VA. Her principal said that the separation of church and
state required him to ban reading of the Bible on school property. The principal was
clearly wrong in his belief. In fact, the US Supreme Court has ruled that students have
religious freedom on school property - including on the school bus. The Rutherford
Institute successfully intervened on behalf of the child and her parents and gave a short
course in constitutional law to the principal. Children have the clear right to read their
Bibles (or any other religious texts) on school property during private time. The
principal withdrew his ban when he was informed of the reality of the law. It could be
argued that this incident is a good indicator that the US has no need for a constitutional
amendment; existing law is quite adequate to handle almost any situation.
His press conference raised some voices in protest:
Mark Pelavin of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism said that a new
amendment "is unnecessary because we already have a religious freedom amendment.
It is called the First Amendment."
Rev. J. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee said: "To the extent
that our laws have not worked well or have been misapplied or misconstrued the answer is
education, not more legislation...We don't need more laws on the books. If it ain't broke,
you don't fix it."
a letter sent to the Cleveland Plain Dealer questioned whether an amendment might
give suicide cults like Heaven's Gate more access to influence
children in the schools.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church
said: "This amendment will give government officials power to run roughshod over
the rights of religious minorities. It is a sham based on the false pretense that
religious freedom is in jeopardy in America. This amendment will not increase free speech
or make us a more reverent nation...I don't want politicians and TV preachers telling my
children and me when and how to pray, and I don't think most other Americans want that
either...Americans today enjoy more religious freedom than any people in world history. We
can't let a few misguided politicians put that accomplishment at risk."
On 1997-MAR-24, Rev. Dr. Albert Pennybacker of The Interfaith Alliance
said during a press conference: "the right to
private personal prayer anywhere is protected...Let us avoid ill-conceived new formulas
which will enable the religious purposes and sensibilities of one part of our society to
coerce all the rest of us."
On 1997-MAY-8, the People For the American Way Action Fund issued
a press release. President Carole Shields said that the
amendment would allow the government to advance one religion over another. She called it a
"Christian Nation" amendment, rather than a "Religious Freedom"
amendment. She warned that supporters of the amendment talk about religious freedom, but "in
reality they want to impose their brand of Christianity on other Christians and
Copyright © 1995 to 2001 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2001-NOV-9
Author: B.A. Robinson