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Topics in this Section:

bulletIstook amendment re-written
bulletGroups supporting the amendment
bulletGroups opposing the amendment
bulletFurther 1997 activity

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Istook amendment re-written:

The Istook Amendment was re-written and re-introduced into the House on 1997-MAY-8. The bill (H.J. Res 78) originally had 100 co-sponsors. This grew to 151 by 1998-MAR. It reads:

"To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: The people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. The government shall not require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity; initiate or designate school prayers, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion.

Rep. Istook stated: "We now have a consensus on language and there is widespread momentum in the House and across the nation for the protection of religious freedom...Thirty years of public opinion polls show that more than 75% of Americans support a constitutional amendment to protect voluntary school prayer. Now is the time we carry out the wishes of the American people...Under the guise of promoting tolerance, religious expression is being singled out for censorship...The Supreme Court has broadened Americans' First Amendment free speech rights in many controversial ways, but it has pushed back our free speech rights when it involves religion. We wouldn't need a constitutional amendment, except that un-elected judges have changed the Constitution for us, by-passing the public and its elected representatives. This is our only way to change it back; it's our peaceful answer to the religious intolerance shown by activists who constantly sue to suppress religious expression." He did not identify who those activists are.

In order for the Constitution to be changed, House hearings would have to lead to a vote in both the House and Senate. If a 2/3 affirmative vote is achieved in both the House and Senate, then the amendment would have to be passed on to the states. If 38 states ratify the motion (75%) then the amendment becomes part of the Constitution. The President of the US and the Governors of the various states have no role to play in this process.

An alternative process is for 2/3 of the state legislatures to call a Constitutional Convention devoted to this topic. This mechanism has been tried a few times in the past 4 decades by conservative groups, but they have never been able to obtain sufficient number of states.

If ratified, this amendment would represent the first change to the US Bill of Rights since it was created over 2 centuries ago. It would give all religions access to the public schools, including followers of all types of minority religions: Islam, Judaism, Witchcraft, Satanism, various destructive cults, etc.

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Groups supporting the amendment:

Support for the amendment appears to be primarily from the Christian religious right. Three influential groups within the Christian religious right: Focus on the Family, Christian Coalition and Family Research Council  held a press conference on 1997-MAY-22, in support of the amendment. The main groups in favor of the amendment are believed to include:

bulletThe Christian Coalition: In their Contract with the American Family, states "We seek a balanced approach that allows voluntary student and citizen-initiated free speech in non-compulsory settings such as courthouse lawns, high school graduation ceremonies and sports events." However, the Istook amendment would go far beyond that type of activity.
bulletThe Family Research Council: Kristi S. Hamrick issued a press release on 1997-MAY-8 called "Protecting Religious Freedom Requires a Constitutional Amendment". She said, in part, that an amendment is needed "to reverse the activist trend of valuing 'freedom from religion' more than the 'freedom of religion.'" It will allow funding of religious "organizations that provide much needed services like drug rehabilitation, child care and job training..." The FRC describes the amendment as if it would be a version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act enshrined in the constitution. However, the RFRA promotes the separation of church and state, whereas the Istook amendment would partially destroy it.
bulletThe National Association of Evangelicals, which includes over 40 denominations as members, issued a press release on 1997-MAY-1. Although originally opposed to the Istook amendment, they changed their position after changes were made. Don Argue, president of the NAE, stated that the amendment addresses a basic concern of the evangelical community "that government not deny equal access to public benefits on account of religion...Moreover, the change to include the phrase, 'according to the dictates of conscience' together with Rep. Istook's assurance that minority rights are protected, secures individual rights of conscience."
bulletThe Southern Baptist Convention: On 1963-MAY-9, the Convention adopted a statement of "Faith and Message" which included a strong message in favor of the First Amendment. Section XVII. Religious Liberty" "...Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others...The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion." In the decades since that resolution was accepted, the Conference has experienced an internal struggle between Fundamentalists and its more liberal factions. The conservative element won. Their Christian Life Commission has gone on record as supporting the Istook amendment.
bulletThe American Conference of Jews and Blacks, American Family Association, Catholic Alliance, Citizens for Excellence in Education, Concerned Women for America, Focus on the Family, General Council of the Assemblies of God, International Pentecostal Church of Christ, Jewish Union, National Baptist Convention,  Wall Builders, and Youth for Christ also support the amendment.

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Groups opposing the amendment:

The Coalition to Preserve Religious Liberty is an alliance of over 50 national religious, education, and civil liberties organizations which is opposing the amendment. They are mostly from liberal and mainline Christendom, and from non-Christian religions. The split between this coalition and the groups supporting the amendment gives a small indication of the degree of religious conflict that will result if the amendment is passed. A full list of its membership is available. 1 Groups include:

bulletThe Interfaith Alliance
bulletPeople for the American Way Action Fund
bulletAmerican Civil Liberties Union.
bulletAmericans United for Separation of Church and State
bulletMany religious organizations, including: The American Baptist Churches USA, American Humanist Association, American Jewish Committee, Americans for Democratic Action, Americans for Religious Liberty, Anti-Defamation League, Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, B'nai B'rith, the world's largest Jewish organization, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Church State Council of Seventh-day Adventists, The Episcopal Church, Friends Committee on National Legislation (Quakers), General Board of Church & Society, United Methodist Church, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Mennonite Central Committee - Washington Office, Muslim Public Affairs Council, National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, National Council of Islamic Affairs, Presbyterian Church (USA) - Washington Office, Rabbinical Assembly, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Southern Christian Leadership Council, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Unitarian Universalist Association
bulletA number of educational organizations, including: American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty, Inc. National Education Association oppose the amendment.

The very influential Catholic Church has not yet taken a position on the amendment. With the obvious division between the religious left and the religious right, their decision could be of great importance.

The Coalition for Religious Freedom 2 has a questionnaire 3 titled "What is your view on prayer in schools?" They have received a total of  523 votes as of 1998-JUN-21. Responses were:

bullet1% believe that our schools fail when each day is not started with compulsory prayer:
bullet1% believe that the school day should start with a Christian prayer since they are the majority religion.
bullet87% believe that students should have the right, as they currently do under the law, to silently pray as they choose and to gather for religious clubs with no direction from the school administration:
bullet11% believe no prayer at all should be allowed in our schools.

These results are probably biased in favor of the status quo, because the Coalition is opposed to compulsory school prayer.

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Further activity During 1997:

bulletThe Christian Coalition: They held a rally on Capitol Hill to kickoff a national campaign to promote the amendment. Ralph Reed, executive director, said "We want to make it clear that we are no longer going to be treated as second-class citizens because of our faith...Our goal is to deluge Capitol Hill with petitions, telegrams and phone calls." Also at the rally was a woman from Tennessee who had received an "F" for a report that she had written on Jesus; her teacher said that the topic was inappropriate. A second woman was not allowed to show a tape in class which showed her singing a Christian song. [We are at a loss to understand why the experiences of these two women support the need for the Istook amendment; both actions by the teachers were clearly in violation of the existing First Amendment]
bulletThe People for the American Way Action Fund: President Carole Shields said: "The right of every American to worship as he or she chooses is in peril today as the Christian Coalition kicks off a sharply partisan, political campaign to amend the U.S. Constitution." The amendment "would open the door for coercive prayer in public school classrooms and would enable government officials to post religious symbols in public places."
bulletThe Interfaith Alliance: First Vice President Rev. Dr. Philip Wogaman told reporters at a Capitol Hill press conference: "This deceptive legislation would pit members of different faith communities against one another, and promote religious intolerance in our public schools ...Frankly, we prefer James Madison's original version [of the Constitution]." He gave some reasons why the group opposes the proposed amendment:
bulletThe amendment is not needed "Silent public prayers, religious clubs, and even non-coercive and non-state sponsored group prayers are already constitutionally protected."
bulletThe amendment would "allow coercion and preaching by teachers and others in positions of power over students."
bulletIt "would destroy a Bill of Rights that has made the United States the most religious country in the Western World."
bullet"The amendment would either single out one tradition to the exclusion of all others or force a prayer that somehow includes all traditions present but is therefore virtually devoid of meaning and demeans the devout."
bulletIt is useless; personal and private prayer is already protected by the 1st amendment
bullet"The amendment would allow teachers and school officials to proselytize under the guise of their official duties -a teacher could legally criticize the faith of some students, lead other students in prayer, and set up religious shrines in his/her classroom."
bullet"State-sponsored or sanctioned prayer infringes upon parental rights to determine the religious upbringing of their children."

Their news release of 1997-JUN-9 concludes:

"The Interfaith Alliance believes that religion best contributes to public life when it works for reconciliation, inspires common effort, promotes community and responsibility, and upholds the dignity of all human beings. The so-called Religious Freedom Amendment accomplishes none of these, instead embracing an agenda of divisiveness, coercion, and exclusion.

bulletThe House Constitution Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee considered the amendment on 1997-OCT-23. Chairman Rep. Charles Canady (R-FL) predicted:

"I think the amendment, possibly changed, will pass the subcommittee and full committee sometime next year. "I think it will be on the floor of the House and it will fail to pass the House by the requisite two-thirds majority. I think its going to be difficult to put together the votes for that effort...The founding fathers very wisely put in place mechanisms that make it difficult to change the basic document. This is one that right now isn't going to make it."

bulletAt the Christian Coalition "Road to Victory" conference, Pat Robertson said that the "Religious Freedom" constitutional amendment is a major goal for the Coalition in 1998, and that every effort should be made to pass it.
bulletThe American Civil Liberties Union opposes this legislation stating "a constitutional amendment is unnecessary. Contrary to claims by its supporters, public schools are not hostile to students' religious expression."
bulletThe Catholic League stated "[w]e do not seek to amend the First Amendment, rather we seek to restore the status quo ante, that is the condition that was outlined  by the Framers of the Constitution and was found acceptable by   the courts for most of our nation's history. In short, we want our rights back."
bulletElliot Mincberg, legal director of The People for the American Way stated "I think the assertion that the judiciary has been hostile toward religion is absolutely false."
bulletThe Baptist Joint Committee stated on 1997-OCT-7 that: "This amendment is dangerous and unfaithful to our Baptist heritage...Government-sponsored prayer in the classroom and government-endorsed religious expression in public places are inherently coercive and would relegate religious minorities to the status of outsiders and second-class citizens if they did not participate in worshiping the god of the majority." 4

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Continue with information from 1998

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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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  1. The Coalition to Preserve Religious Liberty member list at: http://www.jewishwomen.org/cprl.htm
  2. The Coalition for Religious Freedom once had a website at http://members.aol.com/LwyrBabe96/index.html It appears to be offline.
  3. Their questionnaire is at: http://members.aol.com/LwyrBabe96/newpoll.html
  4. The Report from the Capital, Baptist Joint Committee, Volume 53 #4, 1998-FEB-24, Page 4

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Copyright © 1997, 1999, 2001, and 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2004-JUN-15

Author: B.A. Robinson
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