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? Rob Selina of Moriarty, NM, asks: I am a high school student and am worried about the effects of this amendment. I have a couple of questions that I hope you can answer. Is this amendment necessary? Could this amendment require prayer in school?
Terri Schroeder of the ACLU responds:
As a high school student, I'm sure that you are aware that religious expression is alive and thriving in America and in the schools. Therefore, a constitutional amendment aimed at achieving these goals is unnecessary. Recent articles in Time magazine and The Washington Post demonstrate the pervasive presence of religion in American schools. Current law allows extensive religious activity in the schools. Students can pray and read the Bible privately, say grace at lunch, distribute religious materials to their friends, and join voluntary religious clubs.
In terms of your second question, the amendment would have allowed teachers, school officials, or students to lead prayer in schools. Students would have had the right to excuse themselves during prayer time - but how could we be sure that a five-year-old would know when to leave the room? Also, the students who might choose to leave the room could be subject to teasing and alienation by other students. Defenders of religious liberty feared that the effect of the amendment in practice would be to coerce students into prayer.
Arne Owens of the Christian Coalition responds:
The answer to your second question is no. This amendment will not require prayer in public schools. The language is very specific: "...Neither the United States nor any State shall require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, (or) prescribe school prayers..." Whether prayer is required in a private school is, of course, a private matter and not the subject of this amendment. This amendment is necessary because of Supreme Court decisions that have created new legal theory and jurisprudence that runs counter to the intent of our Founders when they wrote the First Amendment. The High Court has imposed arbitrary, subjective restrictions on the free exercise of religion and, in doing so, created a climate of general hostility toward religious expression in the public arena, which is anywhere outside the home or church building. Complaints and litigation throughout the nation are the evidence of this hostile climate.
Our Founders intended a free nation where all speech would be treated equally, including religious speech, and would receive equal protection. That is why they wrote the free exercise clause into the First Amendment protections of religious freedom and joined it so closely with general protections of free speech. They also provided protection from the establishment of a state religion with the establishment clause. That is why a teacher led prayer in a compulsory public school classroom setting is unconstitutional--it is government directed prayer.
It is the establishment of state religion. Prayer should be conducted in settings where attendance is voluntary. Yet it is precisely the Courts restrictions on non-disruptive, voluntary, student led prayer in public schools, at graduation ceremonies and throughout the year, that make this amendment necessary. It is the only tool available to overcome the dictates of unelected Supreme Court justices that have turned the First Amendment on its head with a majority on one in a 5-4 decision.