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Clinton rejects religion amendment as House vote on RFA draws near

WASHINGTON (BP)–President Clinton expressed his opposition to a religious freedom amendment to the U.S. Constitution in his last weekly radio address before such a proposal is expected to be voted on by the House of Representatives.
In announcing the release of revised guidelines on religion in the public schools May 30, Clinton rejected a constitutional amendment as a solution to disgreements on religious expression in public. The House is scheduled to vote June 4 on the Religious Freedom Amendment, a proposal by Rep. Ernest Istook, R.-Okla., that supporters argue is necessary to restore religious liberties they believe have been impeded by courts in recent decades.
The wrong way to protect religious liberty is “amending the Constitution,” Clinton said. “Some people say there should be a constitutional amendment to allow voluntary prayer in our public schools. But there already is one — it’s the First Amendment.”
The president said, “Clearly understood and sensibly applied, [the First Amendment] works. It does not need to be rewritten.”
Supporters of RFA deny they are not attempting to rewrite the First Amendment’s religion clauses.
“We’re not trying to change the First Amendment,” said Will Dodson, director of public policy for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “We’re trying to correct the Supreme Court’s misinterpretations of the First Amendment.
“Guidelines to the public schools can be helpful, but they do nothing to reverse the Supreme Court’s doctrine of separation of church and state, which is often far too strictly applied. We believe that the government has a duty to accommodate the free exercise of religion to the greatest extent possible. This duty goes far beyond merely informing students of what their rights are. As the reach of the federal government has grown greater and greater, it becomes even more important for the government to respect the spiritual needs of its citizens.”
Adoption of RFA, which is House Joint Resolution 78, appears highly unlikely. Ratification of an amendment requires a two-thirds majority in the House and the Senate, as well as approval by three-fourths of the states. It may receive majority approval in the House, but a two-thirds vote appears out of range.
The House Judiciary Committee approved the amendment by a 16-11 vote in early March.
The proposal reads:
“To secure the people’s right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Neither the United States nor any state shall establish any official religion, but the people’s right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. Neither the United States nor any state shall require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, prescribe school prayers, discriminate against religion or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion.”
Nearly all national evangelical and pro-family organizations have endorsed RFA. In addition to the ERLC, other supporters of RFA are the Christian Coalition, Concerned Women for America, Focus on the Family, American Center for Law and Justice, Family Research Council, National Association of Evangelicals and the General Council of the Assemblies of God.
Among the organizations opposed to RFA and any other religious liberty amendment are the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, People for the American Way and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The revised guidelines on religion in the public schools contain changes in light of the Supreme Court’s 1997 opinion declaring the Religious Freedom Restoration Act unconstitutional. The revisions deal with student apparel and excusals for religious reasons. A White House fact sheet on the new guidelines said students’ rights in those areas “are not as absolute” without RFRA. “Schools now have the discretion to excuse students from lessons that are inconsistent with their religious beliefs and schools have the discretion to decide whether students can wear religious garb such as yarmulkes and head scarves to class,” the White House release said.
Secretary of Education Richard Riley said the administration “would encourage” schools to allow religious apparel and excusals.
The religion guidelines were first issued prior to the start of the 1995-96 school year.