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Istook, Land disagree over amendment, SBC resolution

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission’s criticisms of his proposed religious freedom amendment also could be made of a 1995 resolution adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention, Rep. Ernest Istook said, but that is not so, CLC President Richard Land said.

Istook’s assertion came in response to a CLC analysis sent to the members of Congress April 7. The three-page analysis, prepared by Land and the CLC’s legal counsel and director of government relations, Will Dodson, reaffirms the commission’s support for a constitutional amendment protecting religious expression but explains the agency is withholding support of Istook’s proposal.

Istook’s proposed amendment, unveiled March 24, 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 CLC’s analysis, sent April 7 to all senators and representatives, says the amendment would give government the power to:

— Prefer one religion over another.

— Interfere in matters of conscience.

— Compose prayers outside the public school setting.

— Provide direct aid to religious schools.

The “criticism that I am now hearing from the Christian Life Commission would apply equally to the resolution that the Southern Baptist Convention has already officially adopted,” Istook, a Republican from Oklahoma, told Baptist Press April 10. His proposal “follows the key elements” of the 1995 SBC resolution on a constitutional amendment concerning prayer and religious expression, he said.

As an example, the CLC’s charge that his amendment is “so-called majoritarianism … does not seem to recognize that the very same claim could be leveled against the official position of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Istook said. “I don’t think it’s a valid criticism of the Southern Baptist Convention resolution nor is it of the language that we are proposing.”

Istook sent a letter April 10 to other members of the House of Representatives reprinting a portion of the 1995 SBC resolution and the text of his amendment, saying it “follows (the) model” of the resolution. His letter described the ’95 resolution as the “ONLY official Southern Baptist position.”

That resolution does not support the Istook language, Land said April 10.

“First, the Christian Life Commission staff was heavily involved in the drafting of the 1995 resolution,” Land said, “and thus we have a better understanding and grasp of what the resolution says and what the resolution means than does Mr. Istook, an outside observer who was not involved in either the drafting of the resolution, the deliberations of the Resolutions Committee or the defense of the resolution on the convention floor. The CLC staff was involved in all three.

“Second, the resolution says that we are to support an amendment ‘while also advocating Baptist principles of freedom of conscience.’

“Third, not only is Mr. Istook’s interpretation of the ’95 resolution inaccurate, the closest thing there is to an ‘official’ position in Southern Baptist life is the Baptist Faith and Message, our confession of faith. And as our analysis of Mr. Istook’s proposed amendment explains, the article on religious liberty puts the Baptist Faith and Message at odds with Mr. Istook’s proposed amendment at almost every point. So, I would strongly encourage any Southern Baptist who embraces the Baptist Faith and Message as his or her confession of faith to withhold support from the Istook amendment in anything close to its present form.”

Part of the disagreement about the ’95 resolution turns on language calling for an amendment “to permit government accommodation of public or ceremonial acknowledgments of religious heritage, beliefs and traditions of its people.”

The CLC supports its own suggested amendment language permitting “government accommodation of public expression of religious heritage, belief, or exercise by the people,” while Istook’s proposal allows acknowledgment of such practices on public property. This would permit government to make acknowledgments, the CLC analysis says.

It has been stressed to Istook “from the beginning that the 1995 resolution does not support his government acknowledgments language,” Land said.

At its meeting in early March, the CLC’s board of trustees unanimously affirmed the commission staff’s interpretation of the ’95 resolution.

A focus of the CLC’s analysis is its contention the Istook proposal would empower government to make acknowledgments that would prefer a religion, particularly the majority religion, over others.

“What we have are courts denying rights to the majority of Americans,” Istook responded. “And we need to make it clear” that the U.S. Constitution protects “the majority of Americans in addition to protecting minorities,” he said.

“And I’m always concerned about any concept of allowing a minority, especially a tiny minority, to govern over the overwhelming desires of American people.

“Hearing someone else offer prayer is far different from being compelled to take part in that prayer. And I disagree that it should be criticized under the vague term of majoritarianism.

“This is not talking about government power, and I think there are things being said about the amendment that are not in the amendment. It’s my belief that prayers by persons of different faiths are normal in almost all public settings. When you have prayers to open a city council meeting or a Rotary meeting or a PTA meeting, you will more frequently hear prayers from whatever faith is most common among the membership, but you will also hear prayers from others who are within the group. That’s normal, whether you are talking about a group such as those or any other type of meeting.”

Responding to Istook, Land said, “We certainly believe that the rights of the majority ought to be protected, as well as those of the minority. Members of a majority faith ought to have the same right to express their convictions in the public arena as do those of any member of a minority faith.

“Majoritariansim is not a vague term,” Land said. “Rather, it defines an attempt to put the authority, resources and influence of government behind the majority religion to the detriment of minority faiths. As we point out in our analysis, Mr. Istook’s amendment would allow government outside of school to initiate and compose prayers to be said at government events, which puts government sponsorship and power behind those prayers at the expense of other prayers that are not initiated and composed by the government.”

The CLC analysis also says Istook’s proposal no longer includes the phrase “according to the dictates of conscience,” which clarified the “people’s right to acknowledge God” in his version in the previous congressional session.

“There is nothing inconsistent with that and the language we have, but adding that phrase doesn’t change the meaning of the amendment,” Istook said. “It only lengthens it. I don’t think adding extra language such as that changes the meaning. It’s an absolute necessity that the language be kept as concise as possible to win public approval. There’s all sorts of phrases that we could add which would be proper and consistent but wouldn’t contribute anything extra to the protections in the language.”

Land said, “The phrase ‘according to the dictates of conscience’ is not just a collection of words but rather encapsulates in summary form the Baptist conviction that every man and every woman has a God-given right to express and practice his or her faith in accordance with their own conscience without interference from government intervention. That has been our conviction from Thomas Helwys and Roger Williams down to the present day, and I pray it will always be so.

“That Mr. Istook thinks that the phrase only adds additional words to his amendment is indicative of the conceptual problem at the heart of the disagreement over what kind of an amendment America needs. We believe America needs an amendment that protects the freedom of religious conscience of all Americans, majority and minorities, and we believe along with many First Amendment constitutional scholars that our proposed language rather than Mr. Istook’s does just that.”

In their analysis, Land and Dodson suggest the following language for an amendment:

“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.”

Istook said he would continue “to try to work with Southern Baptists as well as with others throughout the country.”

“I wouldn’t want it to be postured as a conflict,” he said. “Dr. Land has been free and generous with the time he has spent with me, and I’ve enjoyed our discussions.

“I think that we are talking about some disagreements with some people who have the same basic goals and objectives and that we should be able to resolve.”

Land said he looked forward “to continued discussions with Mr. Istook and his allies, as well as with Southern Baptists. I believe that this may well be Southern Baptists’ finest hour as we help our fellow Americans understand the God-given rights of freedom of conscience in religion as well as the dangers involved in allowing the government to sponsor some religions over others.”

Southern Baptists may receive a copy of the 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.