Religious Freedom or Oppression?

Religious Freedom or Oppression?

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By Judy Osborne

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. — Amendment I, U.S. Constitution, as it is written today.

Oklahoma’s Ernest Istook is a congressman of little distinction. His fifteen minutes of fame has been conferred on him almost solely by virtue of having his name attached to a Constitutional amendment formally, but erroneously, named the “Religious Freedom Amendment”.

Earlier this month, the House Judiciary Committee voted out the “Religious Freedom Amendment” to the full House of Representatives with a favorable recommendation. Congressman Istook bragged that, “We’re moving towards reversing the damage of 36 years of court rulings trampling religious freedom.”

Istook’s amendment would tear down the wall of separation between church and state guaranteed by the First Amendment. After noting that no “official” state religion shall be established, the “Religious Freedom Amendment” goes on to say, “but people’s right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed.”

The language is dangerously vague. Who are the “people” referred to in the amendment? Could they possibly consist of a majority of the voters? What about the religions of the other 49 percent? Will the prayers be silent or spoken? Posted on bulletin boards or displayed on banners? Spoken in unison? On loudspeakers? Who gets to chose the text, to whose god? Will students who don’t want to pray have to excuse themselves publicly, with embarrassment and perhaps persecution? Will church schools, which also can receive taxpayer funding under Istook’s amendment, be allowed to require adherence to a particular faith? How many different schools will taxpayers have to fund to encompass America’s diversity? Will we still be able to fund public schools adequately? Who will teach the handicapped, the unruly, those with special needs? Will all things inconsistent with the majority’s religion be purged from libraries and classrooms? Will the Christian Bible’s version of science be taught in public schools? The questions go endlessly on and on.

What are these rulings trampling our religious freedoms, which Istook promises his amendment will fix? James Dobson has the answers, and he’s not shy about revealing them to legislators.

Described by ABC’s Forrest Sawyer as “one of the most powerful men in America, yet few people even know his name,” Dobson commands the attention of prominent Republicans everywhere. Dobson runs Focus On the Family, a hugely-successful Christian fundamentalist organization with more than two million core supporters and twelve hundred employees. Operating with an annual budget above $100 million, Focus On the Family broadcasts seven days a week on radio and television to an estimated regular audience of five million of the faithful, and distributes ten publications to a combined circulation of three million. Dobson himself has written fourteen books, with sales exceeding sixteen million copies. Though he shuns the mainstream press, Dobson can generate considerable steam behind an issue by causing hundreds of thousands of heartfelt letters to arrive almost instantly on legislators’ doorsteps.

Last month Newt Gingrich asked Dobson for a list of his top legislative priorities. Dobson responded with a letter to Tom Coburn of Oklahoma (Dobson is mad at Gingrich), with copies to all of the Republicans in both branches of Congress. Among Dobson’s many complaints and demands in the letter he didn’t write to Gingrich were these statements regarding his version of “religious liberty”:

“We want Congress to reassert its authority regarding the defense of religious liberty, despite the Supreme Court’s overturning of (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act) last June. The erosion of religious freedom during the past 36 years is breathtaking, beginning with the Engel and Abington decisions, which eliminated prayer in schools in 1962-63, followed by the Stone decision prohibiting the posting of the Ten Commandments on school bulletin boards, the Weisman decision banning prayers at school graduation ceremonies, the Casey decision which essentially abrogated natural law in favor of each person’s right to interpret his or her own reality, and the Roemer decision, which branded Coloradans as bigots for having moral concerns about homosexuality.”

Dobson is a Christian. Christians constitute the majority of voters in almost all school districts, so one has to assume that Dobson is talking about Christian prayers, certainly a Christian set of the Ten Commandments on bulletin boards, the teaching of the Christian version of creationism, and Christian bigotry. In his letter, Dobson also asks for government funding of alternative schools (Christian schools are in his mind, we can assume) and opposes a national testing program, Goals 2000, and any further funding for the Department of Education.

Dobson supports Istook’s amendment, but he doesn’t want to wait for it to become the law of the land. In the same letter, he goes on to suggest to the Republican majority in Congress that:

“Once before in the nation’s history, the President and the Congress overrode a Supreme Court decision (when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in contradiction to the Dred Scott decision). It is time for Congress to assert itself again . . . We urge Congress to defend its right to address the significant issues of the day, rather than defer to a five justice, unelected majority on the U.S. Supreme Court. Religious liberty is the issue on which to make the stand, and the time to do it is now.”

In other words, Dobson wants to eliminate the balance of powers which were so carefully crafted by the framers of the Constitution.

Why do we need a balance of powers, you may ask (I hope you don’t have to ask, but sometimes the schools don’t teach it very well)? Power is balanced among the Presidency, the Congress and the Supreme Court to provide a government responsive to the will of the people, while deferring to the Constitution to establish a series of individual rights which were written expressly to prevent tyranny by the majority. Otherwise, the fundamental rights of minorities could and would be trampled by 51 percent of the voters. The Constitution, especially within the Bill of Rights, defines these fundamental rights, and the Supreme Court makes sure that we continue to enjoy them even if we don’t have the clout of the majority on our side. The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights defines the authentic version of religious freedom, and that’s the article Istook wants to modify and Dobson would like to bulldoze along with the authority of the Supreme Court itself.

If you happen to be Black, Hispanic, poor, Buddhist, Muslim, handicapped, gay, or transgendered, you might want to call your congressperson pretty soon.

Dobson retired from running Focus On the Family to start another non-profit foundation, Family Talk. Istook held his congressional seat for 14 years and completed seven terms in the House. Currently, Ernest Istook is a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., and is a conservative talk radio host.

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