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Istook amendment revised to mollify religious groups, introduced in House.

The Religious Right's latest attempt to remove church-state separation from the Bill of Rights finally reached the halls of Congress last month with the introduction of Rep. Ernest Istook's (R-Okla.) "Religious Freedom Amendment."

Istook unveiled the proposal last March, but its formal filing in the House was delayed due a lingering squabble over the measure's language. Three major religious groups, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and the Christian Legal Society (CLS), all refused to back the original version of the amendment.

In April Istook announced he had made a series of changes to win the support of the SBC. Later, he made a few more changes and won the backing of the NAE. (CLS leaders remain uncommitted.)

The amendment, now 71 words long, 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."

Critics such as Americans United charged that Istook's proposal (H.J. Res. 78) would allow religious coercion in public schools, encourage government meddling in religious matters and tax Americans to support religious institutions. They asserted that the amendment would effectively remove the wall of separation between church and state.

Announcing the latest version of his amendment at a May 8 Capitol Hill press conference, Istook said the measure has 116 co-sponsors, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich and most of the GOP leadership. (Nine Democrats have signed on.)

Gingrich is apparently eager to make the amendment a cornerstone of a new social-issues congressional agenda. Addressing the National Religious Broadcasters Public Policy Conference in Washington May 8, Gingrich endorsed the Istook amendment.

"I believe it is vital," said Gingrich, "that we reassert the centrality of faith in the definition of America .... There's an enormous difference between any person of faith who believes there's a Supreme Being and a person who believes we're simply protoplasm temporarily here .... [T]he vision that there can be a secular American polity divorced from the reality of the Creator is a hopeless, empty desert of despair. It is impossible."

Istook's proposal came under immediate attack by congressional opponents who support church-state separation. At a press conference outside the Capitol, a bipartisan group of House members pledged to gather opposition to the measure.

Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) called the Istook amendment "the greatest threat to religious liberty this country has ever experienced. It is designed to remove the separation of church and state from the Constitution, and it will subject our religious freedoms to the whims of majority rule."

Observed Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), "To tamper with the First Amendment has profound implications. If I must choose between Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the Bill of Rights or Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, I will proudly stand with the Bill of Rights."

Joining Scott and Edwards at the event were Reps. Steve Horn (R-Calif.), Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) and Walter Capps (D-Calif.).

In a press statement issued the same day, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn called the Istook proposal "a constitutional landmine cobbled together by a committee of TV preachers and right-wing interest groups."

Observed Lynn, "This is the fourth version that Rep. Istook and his friends have put forward, and each version has gotten longer and loopier. The Istook amendment would allow forced worship for American school children, encourage religious bigotry and mandate taxation for religion. It would devastate America's tradition of religious tolerance and diversity."

According to Istook, the House Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on the amendment this summer with a vote scheduled in the House by fall. (A companion measure is expected to be introduced in the Senate soon.)

A two-thirds vote of each chamber is required for passage. The amendment must then be approved by three-fourths of the states for ratification.

Americans United has prepared a one-page set of talking points on the dangers of the Istook amendment. The document is available from Americans United on request and can also be found at AU's website: http://www.au.org.
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Publication:Church & State
Date:Jun 1, 1997
Words:731
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