September 29, 1999

Istook reintroduces failed
Religious Freedom Amendment in House

___By Kenny Byrd
___Baptist Joint Committee
___WASHINGTON--After suffering defeat in the last Congress, backers of an amendment to alter the Constitution's religious-liberty protections are mounting another attempt at passing the Religious Freedom Amendment.
___Fifteen months ago, the Religious Freedom Amendment, sponsored by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., fell 61 votes shy of the two-thirds needed to pass the U.S. House of Representatives. The amendment would have allowed some forms of government-sponsored prayer and tax-financed religious activities.
___Istook re-introduced an identical amendment Sept. 15.
___"Now more than ever, we need to protect Americans' right to express their belief in God and to pray on public property," Istook said. "Under the guise of promoting tolerance, religious expression is being singled out for censorship.
___"We wouldn't need a constitutional amendment, except that unelected judges have changed the Constitution for us, bypassing the public and its elected representatives. This is our only way to change it back," Istook said.
___But the same coalition of religious and civil-liberties leaders that led opposition to the Istook amendment in the 105th Congress again denounced the measure. The coalition said prayers that are not sponsored by the government already are allowed in schools.
___Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, who led the fight against the amendment last year, said the Istook amendment has no chance of passing.
___"This Congress will not let the siren song of eight-second sound bites trample on the wisdom of our founding fathers when they built a wall of separation of church and state over 200 years ago," he said.
___"The question before us is not whether God and prayer should be allowed in schools and public places. The question before us in Congress is whether we should have government-organized and government-sanctioned prayer," he said.
___Republican House leaders joined Istook at a press event to support the amendment.
___"Godless education threatens to debase our society for generations," warned House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas. Asked about the slim chances of passing such a measure, DeLay said: "It doesn't matter if it has a chance of passing. The best way to have a national debate is to keep voting. You gotta keep the debate moving."
___"God is not welcome in our secularized schools," DeLay told the audience. "There is one thing that is not allowed in school under any circumstance, and that is prayer."
___DeLay later clarified that comment, telling reporters he meant that "prayer is discouraged in schools."
___Members of the Coalition to Preserve Religious Liberty criticized such characterizations of current laws as distortions.
___Brent Walker, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee, said students "already have a right to pray, wear religious jewelry or shirts and offer religious remarks in the course of class discussion."
___"Prayer is a sacred act that government must not influence or control," Walker said. "Baptists have historically opposed the use of tax dollars to advance religion. When the government funds religion, it violates the conscience of taxpayers who rightfully expect the government to remain neutral."


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