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House falls short of two-thirds vote on Religious Freedom Amendment

WASHINGTON (BP) — The U.S. House of Representatives fell short of the two-thirds majority required in a long-awaited vote June 4 on the Religious Freedom Amendment.
The House voted 224-203 in favor of the strongly contested measure, but supporters needed 61 more votes for the margin necessary to approve a constitutional amendment. An amendment requires not only a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate but approval by three-fourths of the state legislatures.
The less-than-two-thirds majority was expected by the proposal’s backers. They contended the amendment was necessary to remedy more than three decades of Supreme Court decisions they believe have misinterpreted the First Amendment’s clause prohibiting a government establishment of religion. Those rulings have served to restrict religious expression in public that should be protected, said amendment proponents. The House vote was the first on such an amendment since 1971, supporters said.
The most encouraging aspect of the vote “is that for the first time in 27 years the House of Representatives went on record on whether or not they want to reassert the First Amendment rights of Americans to express their religious convictions according to the dictates of their own consciences on public property and in public venues,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “A majority of the House members said that they did want to.”
House members who voted against the amendment will have the opportunity before November’s election to explain their votes in their districts, Land said. Clear majorities of Americans in all sections of the country favor the reassertion of First Amendment religious rights, he said.
“The bottom line is that we have a majority and after the November elections, partially as a result of congressmen losing their seats for having voted against this amendment, we will have an even larger majority and be even closer to our goal of a two-thirds vote in the House,” Land said. “This is not the end but just the beginning of a long, strenuous, but ultimately successful struggle to reassert Americans’ sacred religious freedoms.”
Christian Coalition Executive Director Randy Tate said in a written statement, “We consider it a victory to have had this vote. … We have long recognized this is an uphill battle and requires perseverance over the long term. Passage of a constitutional amendment often requires four or five attempts, so we will continue our efforts on behalf of a religious freedom amendment in future sessions of Congress.”
A spokesman for Rep. Ernest Istook, R.-Okla., chief sponsor of the amendment, said he did not know if the congressman would push a similar measure in the next congressional session. He said, however, Istook “does not go gentle into that good night.”
Mainline religious organizations and church-state groups advocating strict separationism expressed satisfaction at defeat of the proposal, which they called unnecessary and threatening to religious liberty.
“The Congress has reaffirmed the wisdom of our founders, who separated church and state as a means of ensuring our God-given religious freedom,” said Brent Walker, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, in a written statement. “This was not a vote against God or religion; it was a vote for religious liberty and the Bill of Rights.”
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a prepated statement, “The Religious Right’s Godzilla-like assault on the Constitution has finally been vanquished.”
The proposal that caused such strong reactions read:
“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.”
A Democratic cosponsor, Rep. Sanford Bishop of Georgia, offered two amendments to the Istook proposal, but both were overwhelmingly rejected. One amendment would have removed the acknowledgment of God. The other attempted to delete the closing language on benefits.
Only five days before the House vote, President Clinton voiced opposition to RFA in his weekly radio address. “Some people say there should be a constitutional amendment to allow voluntary prayer in our public schools,” he said. “But there already is one — it’s the First Amendment.”
The ERLC’s Land said the most discouraging thing about the vote was “the degree to which the amendment’s opponents continue to be willing to misrepresent the amendment’s intent and scope and continue to say that the amendment will allow government-sponsored prayer and religious observance, which in fact it expressly forbids. In fact, some conservative groups opposed the amendment precisely because it refused to do what its liberal adversaries kept claiming it would do.”
The vote on such an amendment came nearly three years after it was first promised by Rep. Newt Gingrich, R.-Ga. During the 1994 campaign, Gingrich said a vote on a school prayer amendment would be held by the following July 4 if the Republicans gained a majority, making him speaker of the House.
The GOP gained a majority, but progress on an amendment bogged down in negotiations on the language in such a measure. By the end of 1995, Istook and Rep. Henry Hyde, R.-Ill., both had offered proposals. The ERLC favored Hyde’s approach.
By 1997, however, Istook’s approach was favored by most amendment supporters, and Hyde had chosen not to reintroduce his proposal. The ERLC notified Congress it would not support the Istook measure, but, after changes were made in the language, the commission endorsed the amendment in April.
Nearly all national evangelical and pro-family organizations endorsed RFA. In addition to the ERLC and Christian Coalition, other supporters of RFA included Focus on the Family, American Center for Law and Justice, Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, National Association of Evangelicals and the General Council of the Assemblies of God.
Some amendment backers warned House members before the vote they would make opposition to RFA an issue in this year’s elections.
In 1995, the Clinton administration issued guidelines on religion in the public schools that many amendment proponents saw as a preemptive strike against their efforts. A revised version of those guidelines was announced last week to reflect changes in light of the Supreme Court’s 1997 opinion declaring the Religious Freedom Restoration Act unconstitutional. RFRA, enacted in 1993, required government to meet a higher standard before restricting religious expression.