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NAE agrees to support revised Istook amendment

WASHINGTON (BP)–The National Association of Evangelicals has agreed to support a religious freedom amendment proposed by Oklahoma Congressman Ernest Istook. The NAE joins the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission in endorsing the amendment after changes were made in language previously proposed by Istook.

In addition to changes made in mid-April in order to receive the CLC’s support, Istook and other proponents of his proposal agreed to NAE’s request for new wording in the last portion of the amendment.

The new version 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 mid-April version concluded with “or deny a benefit due to religion.” NAE President Don Argue said May 1 in a written statement, “We can now support the amendment because it addresses a basic concern of the evangelical community — that government not deny equal access to public benefits on account of religion. Moreover, the change to include the phrase ‘according to the dictates of conscience’ — together with Rep. Istook’s assurances that minority rights are protected — secures individual rights of conscience.” Istook agreed to include the “conscience” clause in an April 17 meeting that included CLC President Richard Land and legal counsel Will Dodson.

In the same meeting, the proposal was altered to read the “people’s right to pray and to recognize” their religious beliefs shall not be restricted, instead of being the “right to pray or acknowledge” religious belief.

Istook also committed to a statement of intent clarifying the amendment does not damage the establishment clause of the First Amendment but corrects misinterpretations of it, Land said. In response to the changes and statement of intent, the CLC announced its support April 21.

Only two weeks before the announcement, the CLC had sent to all members of Congress an analysis explaining why it refused to support language announced March 24 by Istook, a Republican. The three-page critique reaffirmed the CLC’s advocacy of a constitutional amendment supporting religious expression but said the agency would not endorse the Istook version as proposed. That version was never introduced in the House of Representatives.

The CLC said the March 24 Istook proposal would give government the power to interfere in matters of conscience and to prefer one religion over others. When Istook unveiled his amendment in March, the CLC, NAE, Christian Legal Society and Traditional Values Coalition withheld support. With NAE’s announcement, only CLS has not endorsed the Istook amendment. The TVC endorsed the amendment at the same time the CLC did. The Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and American Family Association endorsed the March proposal and continue to support the new version, Istook said. School prayer activists William Murray and William Dannemeyer also support it, he indicated. School prayer advocate David Barton, a supporter of the Istook version announced in March, said in an April 21 analysis he opposes the new language. The previous Istook language the CLC, NAE, CLS and TVC did not endorse read: “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.” Some church-state, civil liberties and religious organizations are opposed to any constitutional amendment on religious liberty. They 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.