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THE ISTOOK CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS ON 'RELIGIOUS FREEDOM' (1998 to 2001)

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Topics in this Section:

bullet1998 activity
bullet1998 senate bill
bullet1999 activity
bullet2001 activity

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Activity During 1998:

bulletThe 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.
bulletRep. 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
bulletIn 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 leaders:
bulletRev. 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."
bulletBaptist 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."
bulletRabbi 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.

bulletRabbi 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 his comments:
bullet"The First Amendment...should be treated with special care. Yet Congress is treating it like a first draft."
bulletThe "'Religious Freedom Amendment'...would foster religious tyranny."
bullet"It would allow three things:"
bullet"Authorize official religious worship in public schools, with no provision made
for those students who do not want to take part...
"
bullet"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
'church taxes'
"
bullet"Encourage government to 'recognize . . . religious beliefs, heritage or
traditions' a concept so vague it could mean almost anything.
"
bullet"Utah could declare itself officially Mormon; Oklahoma could authorize a Christian
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!
"
bulletThe 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 1960's. 

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1998 Senate Bill:

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.

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1999 activity:

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.

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2001 activity:

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 activities."

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 includes religious
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 places."  7

The constitutional amendment was introduced as H.J. Res. 81. It has 74 co-sponsors. 8

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Implications of the Istook Amendment

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 become constitutional:

bulletThe public school day could begin with a student delivering a sectarian prayer over the PA system.
bulletIndividual teachers could select a student to read a prayer.
bulletCoaches or members of athletic teams could recite a prayer or give a sermon before a game.
bulletStudents could invite a member of the clergy to lead the student body in a prayer at compulsory school assemblies.
bulletStudents of majority faiths would be able to set the religious agenda for the entire school.
bulletPublic officials, judges, military offices, government employers etc. could proselytize to employees under their jurisdiction.
bulletCongress could pass a law declaring the US to be a "Christian nation".
bulletReligious conflicts would be aggravated as various religious groups competed with each other to have their religious symbols given prominence on public property.
bulletThe government could take money from general taxation revenue and give it to sectarian religious groups.

The amendment appears to be vaguely worded:

bulletThe 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 increase.
bulletThe 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.
bulletThe 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 promote same-sex marriages and allow gays and lesbians to obtain all of the many hundreds of benefits of married people.

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Related essays:

bulletSeparation of church and state issues
bulletThe Bible and public prayer
bulletReligion in the U.S. public schools
bulletRecent U.S. court rulings on separation of church and state
bulletOrganizations dealing with separation issues

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References:

  1. Rep. Istook's questionnaire is at: http://religiousfreedom.house.gov/survey.htm
  2. 'An Individual For Religious Freedom.' "Tell Istook the Real Truth!!! ( and let him know you aren't fooled by his 'questions' )" at: http://members.aol.com/WolfOwlEye/RFAquest.html
  3. Arthur Starr, Rabii of Temple Adath Yesherun of Manchester, NH. Article in the Union Leader newspaper on 1998-JUN-1.
  4. The Coalition for Religious Freedom had a website at http://members.aol.com/LwyrBabe96/index.html It appears to be offline.
  5. Their questionnaire is at: http://members.aol.com/LwyrBabe96/newpoll.html
  6. "Istook cites religious revival as grounds for school prayer law," AANEWS newsletter, 2001-NOV-7
  7. "Istook launches new effort to legislate school prayer," AANEWS newsletter, 2001-JAN-13.
  8. "Legislator introduces school prayer amendment," Traditional Values Coalition newsletter, Vol. 5, Issue 2, 2002-JAN-12.

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Copyright 1997, 1999, 2001 and 2002 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2002-FEB-9

Author: B.A. Robinson
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