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Congressman Istook introduces religious liberty amendment

WASHINGTON (BP)–A constitutional amendment to protect religious expression has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives with the support of more than 110 cosponsors and most of the country’s evangelical and pro-family advocacy organizations.
Rep. Ernest Istook, R.-Okla., introduced the Religious Freedom Amendment May 8. The proposal reads:
“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 beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. The government shall not require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, initiate or designate school prayers, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion.”
The language differs from that announced by Istook in late March. Changes were made after the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission and other organizations refused to support an initial Istook proposal.
The Christian Life Commission announced its support for a new version when Istook agreed to include a “conscience” clause and to change the language to say it is the “people’s right to pray and to recognize” their religious beliefs. The CLC had expressed concern the earlier version would have given government the power to “acknowledge” the religious belief of its choice. Istook also agreed to statement-of-intent language saying the amendment is intended to clarify, not damage, the protection against the establishment of religion in the First Amendment.
The National Association of Evangelicals endorsed the amendment when a change was made in the “benefit” language.
In a written statement, Istook said, “We wouldn’t need a constitutional amendment, except that unelected judges have changed the Constitution for us. This is our only way to change it back; it’s our peaceful answer to the religious intolerance shown by activists who constantly sue to suppress religious expression.”
CLC President Richard Land said he believes a “consensus has been achieved and that it is one that the vast majority of Southern Baptists” support.
Istook said he hopes hearings on the amendment will be held this summer and a House vote will occur in the fall.
Other organizations supporting the Istook proposal include Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, American Family Association and the Assemblies of God general council, Istook’s office indicated. School prayer activists William Murray and William Dannemeyer also support it.
The Christian Legal Society, however, continued to withhold its support for Istook’s proposal, although it supports the need for a constitutional amendment. In a written release May 8, CLS expressed concern the Istook language still would permit government preference of a specific religion.
Meanwhile, some members of Congress and religious leaders held a May 8 news conference on Capitol Hill expressing their opposition to the Istook proposal, calling it unnecessary and harmful to religious liberty. David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in a written statement his organization would “make defeat of this noxious amendment our foremost priority.”
Other organizations that have announced their opposition to the Istook proposal and any other constitutional amendment on religious liberty include the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the National Council of Churches, People for the American Way and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.