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Church-state collision in Congress? With elections looming and the religious right restive, Americans United's Legislative Department is gearing up for a rough ride on Capitol Hill.

Religious Right activists spent the end of 2005 surveying the political landscape in Washington, D.C.--and they didn't like what they saw. Several bills backed by Religious Right groups passed the House of Representatives and went to the Senate, where they promptly fell into a black hole. This year, they vow, things will be different.

"There are so many issues that could be acted on," long-time Religious Right strategist Paul Weyrich told The Hill newspaper in early December. "There are issues that the House has acted on that could be taken up in the Senate. Nothing has been taken up in the Senate."

The Family Research Council was so dismayed over the Senate's lack of interest in its issues that it didn't even list that body on its annual "Congressional Scorecard" publication.

"This was the first time since we looked at both houses that we had to leave the Senate off," Tom McClusky, the FRC's director of government affairs, told The Hill. "They didn't have anything that we saw as family votes. Sometimes it seems like we got more done during the Reagan administration when [Republicans] didn't have control [of Congress] or during the Clinton administration when we didn't have the administration on our side. There is a level of frustration especially among our grassroots."

Religious Right strategists are still trying to figure out what went wrong. Some believe Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is trying to distance himself from the Religious Right in advance of a presidential run. Others think the Senate simply got derailed by issues like the Iraq war and the Gulf Coast hurricanes.

Will things be different this year? One all-important factor could make all the difference: 2006 is an election year. The Republicans, racked by scandal and facing growing discontent over the ongoing war in Iraq, are worried about losing votes. Religious Right activists serve as the GOP's base, and it may be necessary to toss them some legislative red meat to keep these party loyalists excited enough that they don't stay home on Nov. 7.

As Congress comes back into session this month, members of Americans United's Department of Legislative Affairs have been following developments closely and are engaged in intensive day-to-day advocacy. Aaron Schuham, director of the department, told Church & State he expects movement on a number of church-state issues this year.

"Congress will continue in 2006 to place church-state separation at risk on a variety of fronts," Schuham said. "Americans United's Legislative Department will be working aggressively to defeat legislation that would undermine the Constitution and place religious liberty at risk."

Continued Schuham, "To be effective, we need our members and activists, more than ever, to support our efforts by taking action on key pieces of legislation. Grassroots activism will play an incredibly important role in preserving church-stat separation this session."

A summary of issues that may arise in Congress this year follows:

Faith-Based Initiative

Last year, the House of Representatives passed several measures designed to allow religious organizations to take tax funds and still discriminate on religious grounds when hiring staff. So far, none of these bills has cleared the Senate with the discriminatory language intact. Advocates of church-state separation say the issue is heating up, and there may be a big push on the Senate floor in 2006. Possible targets include a Head Start reauthorization bill and job-training legislation.

This issue is extremely important to the Religious Right. While many "faith-based" organizations from the moderate Christian perspective are happy to hire people from various religious backgrounds, others, particularly fundamentalist and theologically conservative groups, have been reasserting their sectarian identity and firing not only nonchurch members but anyone whose lifestyle offends church dogma, such as gay people and single parents. These fundamentalist-oriented groups are getting the lion's share of tax aid under Bush's initiative, making the issue all the more relevant.

AU leads a coalition of more than 100 national organizations that work to oppose the faith-based initiative. Americans United and other civil liberties and civil rights groups argue that when religious groups accept tax aid, they forfeit their right to discriminate on religious grounds. They note that programs like Head Start, which is sometimes sited at churches, are secular and must offer services to everyone regardless of religious affiliation. Since these programs have no religious content, AU asserts, there is no reason for them to restrict hiring to members of certain faiths.

"If we allow sponsors of federally funded programs to discriminate, we lose any moral authority we may have to prohibit discrimination by private individuals with their own money," U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) told Church & State.

Partisan Politicking In Houses Of Worship

2006 is an election year, which is sure to force the issue of church-based politicking back on to the congressional docket. For several years, U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones has pushed a bill that would significantly weaken the Internal Revenue Service's ban on partisan politicking by houses of worship. Advocates of church-state separation fiercely oppose Jones' overture.

IRS regulations currently state that all non-profit groups holding the 501 (c)(3) designation may not endorse or oppose candidates for public office. Jones' bill would lift that ban--but only for houses of worship. Critics say the measure would not only open the door to political machines operating in churches, it would create a system of unequal treatment between religious and secular nonprofit groups.

The House voted on Jones' bill in 2002, and it was defeated. However, the political landscape looks a little different now. Several Religious Right groups have taken up the crusade and are demanding action on the issue. Jones has altered the bill and insists he deserves another crack at House passage.

At the same time, progressive religious groups are slowly being drawn into the debate. In November, media reports surfaced that a liberal church in Pasadena, Calif., was being investigated by the IRS for an anti-Iraq war sermon delivered by a guest minister two days before the 2004 presidential election.

In reality, the speech at All Saints Episcopal wasn't so much anti-war as anti-Bush. The guest minister, the Rev. George Regas, framed the sermon as an imaginary debate between Bush, U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry and Jesus Christ. Regas' sermon was much more critical of Bush than Kerry. Coming as it did just days before the election, the sermon could have been construed as an attempt to intervene in the campaign.

The IRS's action has angered many progressive clergy, who believe Regas is being punished for opposing the war--even though his sermon touched on many other issues. In response, the conservative National Association of Evangelicals made overtures to the National Council of Churches, a more liberal body, to discuss joint action against the IRS.

Officials at the National Council of Churches insist they do not back the Jones bill, but it remains unclear what sort of remedy that two groups might propose and if it will take the form of bipartisan legislation in Congress.

Court-Stripping Legislation

Religious Right organizations, angry over federal court rulings upholding the separation of church and state, are pressuring Congress to pass measures stripping the courts of their ability to hear certain types of cases. Usually, these deal with controversial social issues such as the display of religious symbols by government, religion in public schools and recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Some of these measures have passed the House of Representatives, but none have made it through the Senate. The gambit is of dubious legality. Many constitutional scholars say court stripping is unconstitutional. They point out that Congress does not have the power to tell courts that they may not enforce rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

A few conservative legal scholars disagree and insist that Congress does have this power. Should a court-stripping measure pass and be signed into law, it could set up a showdown between the federal courts and the legislative branch.

Federal Marriage Amendment

Some Religious Right groups say their number one priority is securing passage of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution limiting marriage to one man and one woman. Given the power of this issue to spike turnout at the voting booth, it is expected to resurface this year.

Religious Right groups say a "Federal Marriage Amendment" (FMA) is necessary to ban same-sex marriages, which are currently legal only in Massachusetts. Opponents counter that adding the Religious Right's definition of marriage to the Constitution would be a mistake and say that constitutional amendments should not be used as a vehicle to advance controversial social policy.

The issue is expected to arise this year because any congressional action on the FMA always excites the GOP's far-right base. It can also serve as a distraction from other issues. In early November, shortly after the indictment of White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights convened a hearing on the FMA.

Air Force And Chaplaincy Issues

Last year, Americans United asked the Air Force to investigate allegations of official preference toward evangelical Christianity at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The Air Force did, sparking a strong backlash from the Religious Right.

The Air Force downplayed the seriousness of the allegations at the Academy but did concede the need for clearer guidelines dealing with religion. When the guidelines were issued, among their recommendations was that chaplains use inclusive language at gatherings and refrain from proselytizing for specific faiths.

Religious Right groups went ballistic and claimed that chaplains were being muzzled. Led by North Carolina's Rep. Jones, a group of House members petitioned Bush to issue an executive order permitting chaplains to use Christian prayers.

Bush has yet to respond, and Jones and his followers may try a legislative gambit in the House this year.

Vouchers And Private Religions School Aid

After back-to-back hurricanes ravaged the Gulf Coast, House and Senate members proposed a one-year voucher plan aimed at private schools in the region. Church-state separation groups were alarmed, because U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), not normally a proponent of vouchers, cosponsored the legislation. Kennedy insisted the measure was not a voucher bill, but the terms of the legislation plainly indicated otherwise. The $2.4 billion measure contained a provision allocating vouchers worth $6,000 to private-school students displaced by the storm.

The fate of that measure remains unclear, but vouchers are expected to be a hot political topic in 2006. Time magazine reported late last year that the Bush administration will push the concept, calling the drive "a post-Katrina idea, support for Catholic and other private schools as an alternative for inner-city children."

Workplace Religions Freedom Act

Legislation titled "The Workplace Religious Freedom Act" is expected to be reintroduced this year. The bill requires employers to make "reasonable accommodations" for employees' religious needs unless they cause a "significant difficulty or expense" to the employers. While intended primarily to cover things like requests for time off from work for religious observances, the act's language, Legislative staffers at Americans United say, is dangerous and could lead to anti-civil and personal rights abuses.

As an example, Americans United pointed to a spate of recent news stories involving pharmacists who refuse to fill certain prescriptions because doing so would violate their religious beliefs. AU also fears the measure could be used by employees to trump state and local civil rights laws that protect people from discrimination on the basis of marital status or sexual orientation, as well as employers' voluntary civil rights and antiharassment policies.

AU has worked to develop alternatives to WRFA that would increase religious liberty in the workplace without providing a weapon that could be used to harm coworkers and third parties in places of employment.

'Religious Freedom Amendment'

There is one bright spot this year: U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook's "Religious Freedom Amendment," which would permit official prayer in public schools, allow government to display religious symbols and add God to the Constitution is not expected to move.

Istook has announced his intention to seek the Republican nomination for governor of Oklahoma and is giving up his House seat. While Istook will still be in office this year, his amendment is not expected to be a high priority in the House.

In addition to action in Congress, Americans United anticipates a busy year in the state legislatures. As this issue of Church & State went to press, most state legislatures were not in session but were preparing to return. Mara M. Zonderman, AU's state legislative counsel, has been monitoring bills that have been pre-filed in several states.

Based on this preliminary data, Zonderman said Americans United expects to see battles over vouchers in South Carolina and Missouri and tuition-tax credits in Arizona and Utah. California and North Carolina want to make daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools a state law. Florida lawmakers want to add it to the state constitution. Lawmakers in Georgia and Kentucky want to permit government bodies to display the Ten Commandments, and legislators in Kentucky want to add "God Bless America" to license plates. Alabama lawmakers are proposing a "Bible literacy" bill aimed at public schools, and South Carolina is expected to see a fight over evolution.

Zonderman stressed that this list is by no means complete. Not all states allow legislators to pre-file bills, and many lawmakers will wait until later in the year to put forth legislation.

"We're watchful and ready," she said. "The states are often on the frontlines of the fight to protect religious liberty, and we'll be there to make sure that church-state separation is defended as strongly as possible."
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Author:Boston, Rob
Publication:Church & State
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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