NEWS ANALYSIS: Conservatives split on religious speech amendment

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., lined up the heavyweights of conservative Christian politics before reporters at the U.S. Capitol last month to have them declare their commitment to an effort to restore American religious liberty they believe has been eroding for more than three decades.

At the meeting, Istook unveiled his soon-to-be introduced”Religious Freedom Amendment,”a proposal to solidify in the Constitution protections for religious speech in a wide array of public spaces, including the hotly contested arena of the public school.

It is the latest in a series of repeated but failed attempts by political and religious conservatives _ stretching back to the 1960s, when the Supreme Court banned state-sponsored prayer and Bible readings in the schools _ to amend the Constitution and reshape church-state relations. A similar effort failed last year.

This time, Istook has lined up some of the most potent of the conservative Christian political groups _ including the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council and Americans for Voluntary School Prayer, a new group co-founded by former Rep. Bill Dannemeyer, R-Calif. _ to support the effort.

However, notably absent from the news conference were representatives of conservative church groups, such as the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the umbrella organization of theologically conservative denominations and independent evangelical groups.

Istook’s news conference thus not only revealed the strength of his coalition but also its weakness. And it made public the fierce but private battle waging in conservative circles over what kind of constitutional amendment might survive the lengthy adoption process by not only the House and Senate, but ratification by three-fourths of the states.

Istook’s supporters say they’re willing to deal with the uphill battle of getting an amendment passed because they believe Americans have been steadily losing the right to express their religious beliefs in public.

His proposal would enshrine in the Constitution its first reference to God and specifically spell out”the right to pray … on public property, including public schools.” In recent months, supporters of Istook’s language have been actively but privately arm-twisting major religious conservative leaders in hopes of winning support for the congressman’s proposal.

Not all of those efforts have been successful and some have not been well received.

Officials of three evangelical groups that wield a great deal of political power in the conservative Christian world _ the Christian Legal Society, the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals _ either oppose Istook’s latest suggestion or have decided not to take a stand on it. They worry the congressman’s proposed amendment will protect religious majorities but not religious minorities.

Most recently, Istook and the Christian Life Commission (CLC), the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, engaged in fax warfare over the issue, showing how deep the fissure in conservative circles runs.

The CLC faxed every member of Congress a”summary analysis”of Istook’s proposal, charging it would”replace one form of government discrimination … with another.”It included yet another suggested approach to amending the Constitution.

Istook responded with his own fax to colleagues on Capitol Hill saying, in essence, the CLC does not represent the views of the Southern Baptist Convention. He believes the”ONLY official Southern Baptist Convention position”on the religious expression amendment is the resolution that was adopted by the 17,000 delegates to the denomination’s 1995 annual meeting. Istook, a former Southern Baptist who is now a Mormon, believes his proposed amendment”follows that model.” CLC President Richard Land disagrees.”We probably are in a better position to share the Southern Baptist position on this issue than Mr. Istook is,”he said.

Christian Legal Society trustees and board members of the National Association of Evangelicals also have been lobbied heavily to back Istook’s proposal. They haven’t bitten.

Istook and Dannemeyer attended a meeting of the NAE board during the group’s annual convention in March to try to persuade the organization to support the latest version.”Every time you went to sit down, in your chair there was another piece of paper,”said board member JoAnne Jankowski of the lobbying effort. One document the board received was a February letter addressed to NAE President Don Argue and signed by both House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Majority Leader Dick Armey, urging NAE officials”to endorse this forthcoming amendment by official resolution at your convention.” By meeting’s end, however, Argue said the board was not ready to take a position on the issue and the high-level letter”did not move the delegates.”He said of the Republican pressure:”We did not jump when they played a tune.” More than one member of conservative groups opposing Istook have criticized the tactics of the Oklahoma congressman and his supporters.”For government officials to intrude themselves into the internal workings of the National Association of Evangelicals or for government officials to intrude themselves into the internal matters of the Southern Baptist Convention is indicative of a mindset,”said Land.”If the government sponsors religion, they think they own it and they think they can tell you how you’re supposed to do it. We’re supposed to influence them. They’re not supposed to influence us.” Istook defended his actions, saying he was invited by”one of the principals”of NAE. The NAE’s Argue did not respond to requests for an interview on the amendment issue.”I’m disappointed to hear anyone consider it interference when all you’re doing is communicating to people,”said Istook.”There is no authority. There is no effort to control. It is simply a matter of providing information and explanation. That’s just part of persuasion, just as people try to persuade me and I try to persuade them.” One group that has been persuaded is the Christian Coalition.”We have been heavily lobbied by Congressman Istook to support his amendment and we support his amendment,”said Brian Lopina, director of the coalition’s governmental affairs office in Washington.

Lopina said that although the coalition originally had some differences on language, it decided to give Istook its support anyway.”Our standpoint is we did not want to have the perfect be the enemy of the good and realized that we’ve got to get moving on this thing,”he said.

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Gingrich apparently is trying, for the most part, to stay above the fray. When Istook made his proposal public last month, the speaker issued a statement saying he was glad that Istook had moved the process along.”We want these groups to resolve these issues … about how the amendment should be phrased,”a Gingrich aide said.”We don’t want to say one side is right or one side is wrong. What we want to do is move toward an agreement on language.” Asked about the CLC’s newest approach, the aide would only say Gingrich supports the Baptists being”involved in the process”and the speaker has not yet endorsed specific language.

Lopina also carefully commented that the CLC’s proposal is”a welcome addition to the debate,”adding the coalition would support it or Istook’s proposal if either makes it to the House floor.

A top official of the Christian Legal Society, another holdout from Istook’s coalition, said the group hopes the alternative offered by the Christian Life Commission will be given serious consideration.”I think there is a good likelihood that the Southern Baptists will find a (House) sponsor for that language,”said Steve McFarland, director of the society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom.”I certainly hope the House will have an alternative to Mr. Istook’s text. The Constitution deserves better.” (END OPTIONAL TRIM)

The dueling faxes and the now dueling versions of the amendment delight church-state separationists and liberal opponents of the effort to amend the Constitution, especially since Istook said at his March announcement that the disagreements among conservatives on language were settled.”Whether or not someone could write language that fewer people would find objectionable is not … particularly relevant,”said Mark J. Pelavin, chair of the legislative task force of the Coalition to Preserve Religious Liberty.”We’ve argued that the First Amendment offers appropriately robust protection for religion.” (OPTIONAL TRIM _ STORY MAY END HERE)

But Pelavin’s coalition, which includes mainline Protestant, Unitarian and Jewish groups, isn’t relaxing while the conservatives continue to squabble. They, too, are lobbying members of Congress, and have held a recent briefing for Republican House staffers outlining their objections to the amendment effort. They are planning a similar session for Democratic staff.

Members of that separationist coalition know they need to keep up their inside-the-Capitol lobbying because the Christian Coalition is planning to spend up to $2 million in a lobbying effort aimed at the general public.

Among events planned by the Christian Coalition is a”Religious Freedom Celebration,”which will include chartering a jet for a tour of U.S. cities by”victims of religious discrimination who have very compelling personal stories to tell,”said Lopina.

Unfazed, Pelavin recalls that previous hearings and discussions about similar proposals to amend the Constitution have not sparked increased public support.”The more people learned about this, the fewer of them supported it,”he said.

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