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CLC push for religious equality amendment gets boost from trustees

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Trustees of the Christian Life Commission gave unanimous approval to the commission staff’s interpretation of a 1995 Southern Baptist Convention resolution on prayer and religious expression, capping the commission’s semi-annual board of trustee meetings March 6 in Louisville, Ky.

The trustees affirmed the commission’s understanding of the resolution, which calls for a constitutional amendment on religious expression and was adopted during the 1995 Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta after close consultation with the CLC staff. The commission staff’s view of the resolution has been challenged by CLC opponents on the religious freedom issue.

The staff’s interpretation is pivotal in the commission’s preference for the wording of a proposed religious freedom amendment offered first by Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), which is at odds with a competing amendment supported by Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) and former U.S. Representative Bill Dannemeyer.

“We don’t believe that this resolution (1995 SBC) can be twisted and distorted into supporting the Istook amendment,” said Richard Land, CLC president. “The Istook amendment will not protect Americans’ religious expression according to ‘the dictates of conscience’ but according to the majority opinion as interpreted by the government.

“Why else would Mr. Istook revise his amendment to remove the phrase, ‘according to the dictates of conscience,’ after the words, ‘acknowledge God,’ in his amendment?” Land asked.

“The Istook amendment in contrast with the Hyde alternative allows for the government to acknowledge God on behalf of the people,” Land said. “The CLC favors wording in which the government is to accommodate the people’s right to acknowledge God in public and governmental places.”

Despite the disagreement among evangelicals on the wording of a religious equality amendment, Land said the need exists for passage of an amendment “to redress the judicial usurpation of the people’s rights to express their faith over the last 30 years.”

“No one on the CLC staff or trustee board opposes a religious liberty amendment but as the 1995 SBC resolution reads, the amendment must be consistent with ‘Baptist principles of freedom of conscience,'” Land insisted. “This translates to no government-sponsored religion. For as our Baptist forebears knew so well, government-sponsored religion is government-diluted, government-controlled religion.”

Without dissent trustees indicated their approval of the Clinton Administration’s March 1 decision to prohibit federal funding for human cloning research, accepting a resolution which requested “the Congress of the United States make human cloning unlawful.”

“We wasted a lot of years in the life issue,” said James Powell, a CLC trustee from Ellensburg, Wa., and a retired physician. “We need to take a prompt stance on this issue now.”

“This resolution affirms our deeply held religious beliefs. The cloning of human beings represents uncharted territory,” said C. Ben Mitchell, CLC consultant on biomedical and life issues.

“It is important for us to let our convictions be heard while the National Bioethics Advisory Commission and the rest of the nation are making up their minds on this critical issue,” added Mitchell, an assistant professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Trustees postponed taking a position on the controversy generated last month over the display of the Ten Commandments in an Etowah County, Ala., courtroom, declining to vote on a resolution which expressed support for Judge Roy Moore’s action in refusing to remove a “hand-carved plaque of the Ten Commandments from his courtroom” and adopting instead a substitute motion.

The substitute motion, approved by the board on a 9 to 8 vote, referred the matter “to a study committee without prejudice.” The original motion in support of the circuit court judge was offered by Nancy Schaefer, CLC trustee from Clarkesville, Ga.

“We are in a terrible situation. Whatever we do now will be misinterpreted. We are in sympathy with 90 percent of what Judge Moore has done; the problem is with the 10 percent,” said Land, reacting to the CLC board’s discussion of the events in Moore’s courtroom.

“This a very difficult case. We share this judge’s frustration; we share the people of Alabama’s frustration,” Land continued. “All of us are angry at the government’s attempt to suppress the people’s right to express their religious convictions in the public arena.”

Land said we must be vigilant in protecting the rights of citizens, including judges, to express their religious convictions, “without giving government favoritism to one religion over another.”

Reading from the court order that gave Moore the option to leave the plaque on the wall, Will Dodson, director of government relations for the CLC, explained the order says the display of a distinctly religious text is in violation of the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The violation can be remedied, and the plaque can remain in the courtroom, if it is included in a larger display of religious or historical items, Dodson reported, again reading from the court order. He noted Moore has instead insisted the placement of plaque is to promote his own religion.

“You want people to come into a courtroom and not feel like anyone enters with an advantage or disadvantage because of their religious beliefs,” said Dodson, himself a judge in Lubbock, Texas, before coming to the CLC. “That doesn’t mean that judges can’t have religious beliefs, it just means the government shall not favor one religion over another.”

In other business, trustees voted to present the commission’s 1997 Religious Liberty Award to Joseph Tson, an advocate of religious liberty who suffered abuse and imprisonment at the hands of the former Communist government in Romania. The go-ahead was given by the board for the development of a web site on the Internet; and trustees agreed to enter into an agreement with Rice Bowl, Inc. of Spartanburg, S.C., to distribute the rice bowl product to promote world hunger needs among Southern Baptists.

The board meeting was closed with chairman Charles Betts, pastor of First Baptist Church, Vandalia, Ohio, noting the meeting was the last for the Christian Life Commission, which is marking its 50th year of service to Southern Baptists. Betts pointed out the board’s fall meeting would follow the commission’s name change to the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, coincident with the implementation of the SBC’s Covenant for a New Century in June.

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  • Dwayne Hastings