Let's pray City Council leaves 'religious freedom amendment' on the shelf


JAMES Madison wrote in 1822, that "religion flourishes in greater purity without than with the aid of government." If ever there was a country whose history proves the truth of those words, it is ours. Yet, ignoring the wisdom of those words, a committee of the Baltimore City Council recently considered a resolution to support federal legislation that, if passed, would strike at the heart of our religious freedom.

As a civil libertarian, I am quite naturally concerned about threats to religious freedom. But they also threaten me on a personal level. I am a Mennonite, a religion that is outside the religious mainstream. It's one that will never benefit from a "one size fits all" public prayer.

Church and state

The City Council resolution supports the proposed religious freedom amendment, which would amend the Constitution to restore school prayer, mandate government funding of religious institutions, and breach the historic wall separating church and state. If Congress approves this measure, no one -- not even the bill's proponents -- will be safe from government's intrusive grasp on matters of faith and religion.

Since 1962, when the Supreme Court held that government-sanctioned school prayer violated the First Amendment, religious conservatives have tried to bolster their view that school prayer is the solution to all of America's social ills. In fact, the Baltimore supporters of the amendment have claimed that lack of school prayer is the reason for the drug crisis that plagues our community.

For decades now the courts have rightly rebuffed efforts to reinstate government-sanctioned school prayer on constitutional grounds. So the school-prayer lobby came up with an ingenious and insidious idea: to rewrite the Constitution and our nation's historic and enviable tradition of religious liberty. This proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been a top priority of the Christian Coalition and other right-wing Christian groups for months. Indeed, the House leadership has promised an election year vote on this issue, currently scheduled for next week.

While its name is deceptively seductive, this amendment is a dangerous one for non-Christian religious and even Christian religions outside the mainstream, and it offers us little protection in exchange for its serious threats. There are a number of dangerous myths about the need for such an amendment that must be dispelled.

Myth: Americans cannot practice their faith in public places.

Fact: The Constitution and the courts already uphold the right of individuals to engage in personal religious practice in public places. Public school students already have the right to pray, read the Bible, and distribute religious materials to their friends. Religious groups may meet in public buildings and hold rallies in public parks. Those rare circumstances where protected rights are violated result from ignorance or misunderstanding of existing law. A constitutional amendment is certainly not needed to enforce these fundamental rights already guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Myth: This bill is needed to protect religious liberty.

Fact: If this bill were to become law, the danger to religious liberty would be enormous. School administrators would be required to permit organized religious activity on an equal basis by any student or teacher who wished to engage in such activity. A parent could no longer be assured that beliefs, ideas, and modes of prayer taught in the home would not be undermined at public school. Under the amendment, for

example, a student who wished to lead a prayer praising Satan would have the same right to do so as a child who wished to lead a prayer in the name of Jesus Christ or Allah.

Seeking truth

Myth: The amendment would protect all religious faiths equally.

Fact: The phrase protecting "the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property" would appear to permit a judge or jurors to lead the courtroom in prayer and legislators to declare the United States a "Christian nation." So long as the government did not compel joining in prayer or try to enforce its declarations through coercive measures, government officials could publicly endorse a religion and disparage others at will. The possibility of this result is reason enough to reject the amendment. The Constitution cannot protect religious freedom for some while denying that same liberty to others. The amendment would inevitably pit one religious group against another.

It is ironic that some citizens of Baltimore would consider supporting a constitutional amendment that -- contrary to the legislation's stated goal -- would infringe upon the fundamental right of each individual to freely choose a religious activity. Baltimore is an ethnically and spiritually diverse community, justifiably proud of its heritage as a haven for Catholics persecuted for their religious beliefs.

A broad cross-section of groups opposes ths bill, including the National Council of Churches, the American Jewish Congress, the Baptist Joint Committee, and representatives of my own religious denomination, the Mennonite Central Committee.

Far from protecting religious liberty, the religious freedom amendment would endanger the very freedom to worship that all Marylanders currently enjoy. Let's pray that it doesn't pass.

Susan Goering is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

Pub Date: 5/11/98

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