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Does it have a prayer?

National | Istook Amendment gains key support; hearings set for July

Issue: "Army's new MP's?," May 31, 1997

The town of Edmond, Okla., has a hole in its city seal. There used to be a cross in that spot, reflecting the religious heritage so common to Middle America. But after losing a "religious establishment" lawsuit that cost the city nearly a quarter-million dollars to defend, that aspect of Edmond's history was expunged from the record. Rather than replace the cross with a more politically correct symbol, city leaders opted to leave its place empty-a silent witness to the courts' Orwellian attempts to sanitize the present by altering the past.

The secularists may wish they'd taken on a different town. Edmond, it turns out, lies in Oklahoma's fifth congressional district, which since 1992 has been represented by Republican Ernest Istook, a Mormon whose public policy advocacy puts him in political coalition with evangelicals. The crossing-out of Christianity in Edmond has only added fire to Mr. Istook's five-year campaign to protect religious expression from the secular thought police.

"The effort to stifle religious expression is the leading edge of the political correctness movement," Mr. Istook contends. "These people have mounted an effort to create a constitutional right to 'freedom from hearing' something with which they disagree." Today the target is religion, but eventually, he believes, "the agenda of the PC movement is to censor all kinds of speech with which they don't agree." That means that one day, if current trends continue, even political and social opinions will face a standard of personal offensiveness-a standard that "violates the very essence of free speech. You can't have simultaneously freedom from hearing and freedom of speech."

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In an effort to protect the latter category, Mr. Istook and more than 100 co-sponsors introduced the Religious Freedom Amendment in the House of Representatives on May 8. According to the wording of the amendment itself, the purpose is 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 belief, heritage, or tradition on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed."

The "public property" specification is key to the amendment because it would overturn a de facto gag order on religious speech in many public places. The IRS, for instance, has barred employees from having any sort of religious symbols on their desks, saying that such displays create a hostile work environment for non-religious employees in much the same way that sexually explicit materials make the workplace uncomfortable for women. Likewise, some public schools have prohibited students from writing research papers on the life of Jesus or singing "O Come, All Ye Faithful" in Christmas programs.

"The linchpin for court decisions has been that anything involving public property is establishment of religion," Mr. Istook says. "That's ironic because historically public property is the one place where our rights have been most protected and most expansive. The owner of a piece of private property could say, 'I don't want you doing that on my property,' but there were no such restrictions on government property."

Initially, not all evangelical leaders were eager to go along with Mr. Istook. The Southern Baptist Convention announced its support only about a week before the amendment was introduced in Congress, while the National Association of Evangelicals waited even longer. Both organizations voiced concern that the RFA would lead to majoritarianism, allowing religious majorities to run roughshod over the will of minorities. This was precisely the objection of such religiously liberal groups as the National Council of Churches and the American Jewish Congress, both of which remain opposed to the amendment.

Although Mr. Istook insists that "it's been our goal from day one to protect minorities and everyone else as well," he nonetheless changed the amendment's wording slightly to reflect the concerns of the SBC and the NAE. He clarified, for instance, that the government was merely to protect the people's right to religious expression; critics had charged that the earlier wording made it appear that the government had the right to "acknowledge" specific religions. Likewise, the final wording specifies that Americans may "recognize their religious belief ... on public property," while the draft amendment allowed them to "acknowledge" their beliefs on public property.

Despite the changes, Mr. Istook is clearly happy to see years of work on the RFA finally coming to fruition. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), has promised hearings in July, late enough for the amendment's sponsors to react to any Supreme Court decisions further restricting religious expression. "We're going to be ready for anything the court might do," Mr. Istook promises.

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