Subcommittee Hearing on H.J. Res. 78, "Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution
Restoring Religious Freedom"
Tuesday, July 22, 1997
2141 Rayburn House Office Building
Thank you Chairman Canady, and my good friend and the Ranking Member, Bobby Scott for your courtesy in allowing me to give testimony before the subcommittee today. I would also like to thank Chairman Hyde and the other members of the subcommittee for your interest in the religious freedom debate which will impact profoundly the way Americans for years to come will be able to recognize and acknowledge their religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions. Moreover, the leadership of this body in reestablishing by constitutional authority, the right of Americans to pray on public property, including schools, without undue infringement and to be secure in their fight to freedom of religion according to the dictates of conscience in public and in private, is needed now more than ever before.
Over the past thirty years there has been an alarming separation of the people of this country from the longstanding religious heritage that had been woven into the fabric of our history. Ironically, the founding fathers, who had the tyranny of a national religion fresh on their minds, probably would never have envisioned a time in history like today, when religious expression and exercise of any kind in public places is shunned so adamantly by government. They were running from a government too involved in religion. Today, we now have a government that discriminates against religion!
With the succession of cases upholding the "wall of separation" between church and state, the Supreme Court, step by step, in interpreting the "establishment" and "free exercise" clauses of the First Amendment moved us to the point where there is now more constitutional protection for nude art than there is for public religious expression.
That is why I have joined with Mr. Istook of Oklahoma in support of a constitutional amendment, H. J. Res, 78, the Religious Freedom Amendment which reads as follows:
"To secure the people's fight to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: The people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage and traditions shall not be infringed. The Government shall not 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."
I am pleased that over 140 of our colleagues have joined as co-sponsors thus far as we seek to correct instances where the Constitution has been misinterpreted in ways which in fact deny the people their religious freedom.
Please note that I am not wedded to this particular language. I believe that this committee has the expertise and the political skills to craft language that will accomplish the goal of protecting prayer and religious expression in public places, including schools. For example, critics say that this language would introduce the word "God" into the Constitution for the very first time. Unlike the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution makes no mention of a deity. Article VI forbids a religious test for public office, and the First Amendment bars government from making "any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." But the Constitution is otherwise silent on the subject of religion.
Whether the term "God" is general or specific is arguably not clear. It is a common term used in Western religious discourse to refer to a deity but other religious faiths use other terms -- Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma (Hinduism): Kami (Shintoism)-- or are not centered about a deity (Taoism). For this reason I would support the Committee if the language of the first clause of the first sentence were changed to delete the words "to acknowledge God" and instead said: "To secure the people's right to freedom of religion according to the dictates of conscience."
The next sentence gets to the essence of the amendment:
"...The people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed..."
This establishes a fight to pray in public places to include schools and out loud, subject to reasonable limitations of time and circumstances, while preserving the people's right to recognize their religious heritage. The scope of what might be appropriate here can be gleaned from current case law where the Supreme Court has upheld the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayers by a paid chaplain; the inclusion of a nativity scene in a Christmas display in a downtown park; invocations of Divine guidance in deliberations and pronouncements of the Founding Fathers; the opening of sessions of Congress with prayer by a paid chaplain; the inclusion of "In God We Trust" as the national motto on coins and currency; the inclusion of the language "One nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance; Congressional directive that the President designate a National Day of Prayer each year; and presidential proclamations commemorating such religious events as Jewish Heritage Week and the Jewish High Holy Days.
Again, I note that the amendment is not perfect. The last sentence prohibits the Government from requiring 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. All but the last clause is a restatement of current law. That last clause on denial of "equal access to a benefit..." is cited by critics as creating a possibility that this proposal could be construed to allow government an affirmative role with respect to religious expression. Moreover, the nondiscrimination mandate raises questions about the extent to which secular activities by government would necessitate religious activities as well. These are questions it would be better not to create and for that reason the Committee in its wisdom might choose to delete this language.
If during your consideration of H. J. Res. 78 you are willing to craft some alternative language, I would recommend the following:
"To secure the people's right to freedom of religion 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, nor otherwise compel or discriminate against religion."
This is a very important issue. Support for restoration of the Constitutional protections for our religious freedoms is growing every day. I urge this committee to go forward and make sure that this amendment in some form passes this House, goes to the other body, and then to the States for ratification.
Thank you for allowing me to be heard on this matter.