Does the Religious Freedom Amendment
violate or strenghten the First Amendment?
June 10, 1998
in this forum:
How does this proposal protect minority faiths from discrimination? Is this amendment necessary? Does the amendment allow religious schools to receive federal and state aid ? What would the RFA allow that is not already granted under the First Amendment? Is this amendment just an example of the GOP appeasing its constituency? Bob Grotts of Hillsboro, IL., asks: How does this proposal protect against social coercion by teachers and/or students and how are minority faiths protected from such discrimination?
Arne Owens of the Christian Coalition responds:
In public schools, compulsory, teacher directed and led prayer or religious activity would be strictly forbidden in this proposed amendment, as it is in the First Amendment. Such activity amounts to government directed prayer, and is unconstitutional on the grounds it is the establishment of a state religion. Coercion, social or otherwise, by a teacher or student would be forbidden. The text of the amendment says: "...Neither the United States or any State shall require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity..." The body of law based on this fundamental principal, which simply reinforces the First Amendment, will continue in full force.
Protection of minority faiths, or, more specifically, protection of people who hold those faiths, would continue, but in an environment consistent with American freedom, an environment of respect and tolerance for all religious faiths and its public expression. This was the vision of our Founders. It is why the free exercise clause was written into the First Amendment. The original intent of our Founders has been corrupted over the last 30 years, however. The environment created by the Supreme Court, through its decisions to restrict religious expression in the public square, has been one of open hostility and intolerance toward all faiths. The courts have taken the approach that to protect minority faiths, or even those who hold no religious faith, you restrict the religious free speech rights of everyone. In a twisted sort of way, freedom of religion becomes freedom from religion.
Addressing your concern with peer pressure, let me just say that we should not overcome that by taking away very basic free speech rights. That is an issue to be dealt with by teaching respect and tolerance for the beliefs of those with whom we may disagree. We hope, with this amendment, to restore the intent of our Founders, where all religious faiths are treated with respect, and religious speech is given equal protection with secular speech in a society that is truly free.
Terri Schroeder of the ACLU responds:
One of the many problems with Congressman Istook's amendment was that it left unclear how a prayer would be designated as appropriate for a particular classroom. The question arises: whose prayer would it be? The Religious Freedom Amendment proposed that the country give groups of students the right, based perhaps on majority vote or designation by the teacher or some other school authority, to stand before the entire class and lead other students in group prayer. Although students would not be "required" to participate in prayer, they might be forced to leave the classroom if they did not choose to participate and could be ostracized, harassed, and alienated because they did not want to pray with the class.
There were no protections for minority faiths provided in the Religious Freedom Amendment. Representative Istook actually argued that the child who might object to his or her class and teacher saying a prayer during class time is an intolerant bigot . Defenders of religious freedom recognized the Amendment as dangerous not only to minority faiths, but to all people of faith. Perhaps a school would decide that the type of prayer offered in the classroom would alternate on a daily basis: Monday for Jewish prayer, Tuesday for Muslim prayer, Wednesday for Catholic prayer, etc. Under this system, not only would minority religions inevitably be overlooked, but Catholics would be forced to say Jewish prayers on Mondays, Muslims would be forced to say Catholic prayer on Wednesdays, and so on. These examples highlight the overall problem with the Religious Freedom Amendment: government cannot and should not dictate such a personal decision as whether to and how to pray.