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School Vouchers Become Political Football

A controversial school voucher proposal became a political football during budget negotiations last month between the White House and GOP leaders in Congress.

Facing a certain veto from President Bill Clinton, congressional Republicans at first signaled a willingness to remove the D.C. voucher proposal as part of a compromise on the budget.

The voucher measure, sponsored by House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), appeared to be going nowhere on Oct. 7 when it became clear that it would imperil the overall spending bill. Congress passed a similar voucher plan for the District earlier this year, but it was vetoed by the President.

A spokeswoman for Armey said he was looking forward to pushing the voucher plan again in the future and anticipated greater success with "a bigger majority (in Congress) next year."

However, apparently angry about other areas of the budget negotiations, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) did a quick about-face on the issue. Less than a week after Armey announced he would drop D.C. vouchers as part of a compromise, Gingrich signaled that he may have changed his mind on the matter.

"Since they want to focus on education, we've brought back in a number of good ideas," Gingrich told The Washington Post.

Meanwhile, House Republicans had to drop other controversial items from spending bills in order to avoid another government shutdown. For example, the House GOP members were forced to abandon an effort to limit the length of service for the director and general counsel of the Federal Election Commission.

Democrats opposed the provision because they saw it as a bid to unseat FEC General Counsel Lawrence Noble, who, among other things, has overseen a lawsuit against the Christian Coalition for illegal partisan politicking.

Religious Right Fights `Hate Crime' Measure

The death of gay college student Matthew Shepard, who in October was kidnapped, pistol-whipped and left tied to a fence for 18 hours in near-freezing temperatures in Wyoming, has prompted calls from around the nation for tougher hate crime legislation that would include protection for homosexuals. Religious Right groups, however, are opposing the move.

Current federal law limits "hate crime" protections to those who suffer injury based on race, religion or national origin. Last year congressional Democrats introduced the Federal Hate Crimes Protection Act, legislation supported by President Bill Clinton, that would add disability, gender and sexual orientation to the list of protected groups.

Among the groups leading the opposition to the legislation is Gary Bauer's Family Research Council. Steven Schwalm, an analyst for the group, told The New York Times, "Hate-crimes laws have nothing to do with perpetrators of violent crime and everything to do with silencing political opposition. (The legislation) would criminalize pro-family beliefs. This basically sends a message that you can't disagree with the political message of homosexual activists."

Heather Farish, a spokeswoman for the group, told The Washington Times that she thinks the bill is "dangerous" because, "Basically, it's a thought crime--it's getting into someone's head."

Overseas Religious Freedom Bill Passes Congress

The U.S. Congress has agreed to compromise language that allows legislation on religious persecution overseas to pass without opposition.

The International Religious Freedom Act passed the Senate on a 98-0 vote Oct. 9 after legislators agreed that the law would allow the president to decide whether and how to act against nations found to be guilty of religious persecution. Earlier versions of the legislation would have forced the administration to impose automatic sanctions against violators, a provision critics charged would interfere too much with U.S. foreign policy.

The Christian Coalition and other Religious Right groups lobbied heavily for the measure, but it was unclear if they were satisfied with what was obviously a much weaker bill than the one they originally demanded.

The House, which in May passed a version of the legislation which would have imposed automatic sanctions, embraced the watered-down Senate version when faced with minimal prospects for a stricter bill.

President Clinton has indicated he will sign the bill.
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Publication:Church & State
Date:Nov 1, 1998
Previous Article:Opposing the Religious Right: it's as easy as ABC.

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