WASHINGTON (BP)–The Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission has communicated to the members of Congress why it is withholding support for a proposed religious freedom amendment and has offered alternative language in its place.
In a three-page analysis sent April 7 by fax to all 535 senators and representatives, the CLC reaffirms its support for a constitutional amendment to protect religious expression but explains why it refuses to endorse one proposed by Rep. Ernest Istook, R.-Okla. Indications are Istook may introduce his amendment during the week of April 14-18.
Istook’s proposal, which he unveiled at a March 24 news conference, says:
“To secure the people’s right to acknowledge God: The right to pray or acknowledge religious belief, heritage or tradition on public property, including public schools, shall not be infringed. The government shall not compel joining in prayer, initiate or compose school prayers, discriminate against or deny a benefit on account of religion.”
The analysis, prepared by CLC President Richard Land and the CLC’s legal counsel and director of government relations, Will Dodson, says any amendment the CLC supports must protect the religious free-exercise rights of all people and not prefer either majority or minority views. The Istook proposal fails this test, the analysis says.
“Istook’s amendment would replace one form of government discrimination (i.e., preference for the secular or non-religious) with another (i.e., preference for the religious views of the majority),” the CLC analysis says. “This approach is clearly inconsistent with the original intent of the First Amendment to protect the inalienable right of religious liberty from majority rule.”
In the analysis, Land and Dodson contrast Istook’s amendment with one they propose. The CLC’s suggested amendment says:
“In order to secure the right of the people to acknowledge and serve God, according to the dictates of conscience, neither the United States nor any state shall deny any person equal access to a benefit, or otherwise discriminate against any person on account of religious belief, exercise, or expression; nor shall the prohibition on laws respecting an establishment of religion be construed to require such discrimination or to prohibit government accommodation of public expression of religious heritage, belief, or exercise by the people, including the right of each student to engage in student-initiated, student-led prayer in public schools. This amendment does not authorize government to compel, sponsor, or inhibit religious belief, expression, or exercise.”
The CLC analysis says Istook’s proposal has the following problems:
— It gives government the power to acknowledge religious belief.
“This would certainly include acknowledgments that prefer one religion or one religious sect, or cult, over others,” the analysis says. “The text asserts no restriction upon acknowledgments on government property, including acknowledgments by the government at taxpayers’ expense.”
— It does not include the phrase “according to the dictates of conscience,” thereby allowing government “to interfere in matters of conscience, according to the dictates of the majority.” The phrase was part of his amendment in the last session of Congress.
— It would permit government to initiate and draft prayers outside the public school setting.
The only thing the Istook language would keep government from doing “is to ‘compel joining in prayer,'” the analysis says. “Under Istook’s amendment, a state could require that every court and every government meeting be opened with a specific, state-composed prayer which they would decree be prayed at every state function.”
— It would allow government to provide direct aid to religious schools.
Without the qualifier of “any person” in the phrase “government shall not … deny a benefit on account of religion,” the amendment “guarantees that the government will be giving direct government aid to parochial and religious schools,” the analysis says.
In addition to the analysis, the CLC also sent a copy of the Baptist Faith and Message’s article on religious liberty to each member of Congress. Among other declarations, the article says God is the only ruler over the conscience, the government should favor no religious body over others and the church should not use governmental power to accomplish its goals. The Baptist Faith and Message is the SBC’s statement of faith, adopted in 1963.
The Istook amendment “should gravely concern every Southern Baptist who takes seriously” the Baptist Faith and Message’s article on religious liberty, the CLC analysis says.
“Government discrimination against any person on account of religious belief, exercise, or expression simply must not be tolerated,” the analysis says. “Remember, anyone’s religious liberty denied today can be everyone’s religious liberty denied tomorrow.
“History teaches us that when religious people, even well-meaning evangelical Christians, turn to the state for preferential treatment, it compromises the exclusive right of the church to spread the gospel and it compromises the gospel message as well.”
In withholding support for Istook’s proposed amendment, the CLC finds itself separated on this issue from organizations it normally counts as allies. Among the organizations endorsing Istook’s proposal are Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and American Family Association. School prayer activists William Murray, William Dannemeyer and David Barton also support it.
Other organizations that have not endorsed Istook’s amendment are Christian Legal Society and National Association of Evangelicals.
The CLC, CLS and NAE supported a proposed amendment by Rep. Henry Hyde, R.-Ill., in the last session of Congress, but Hyde has chosen not to reintroduce it this time.
Some church-state, civil liberties and religious organizations are opposed to any constitutional amendment on religious liberty. They include the Baptist Joint Committee, the National Council of Churches, People for the American Way and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Southern Baptists may receive a copy of the CLC analysis of the Istook amendment by contacting the CLC, 901 Commerce St. #550, Nashville, TN 37203, (615) 244-2495. It also is available in the CLC library of the B Forum of SBCNet.