The Religious Freedom Amendment was defeated 224-203 in 1998, 61 votes short of the necessary 2/3 majority to change America's Constitution. The RFA was a dangerous manifestation of religious bigotry and authoritarianism. It was nothing more than an attempt by the Christian Right to impose their religion on society. We haven't heard much about the Religious Freedom Amendment in recent years, but the underlying goals are still there and I doubt that this tactic has been entirely abandoned.
What Was the Religious Freedom Amendment?
We already have an amendment to our Constitution which protects the religious liberties of individuals, including children. So why a new Religious Freedom Amendment? If it wasn't going to be redundant, then it must have had some other purpose. Supporters must have seen the RFA as authorizing more than the current law allows.
The text finally voted on reads:
To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Neither the United States nor any State shall establish any official religion, but the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. Neither the United States nor any State shall 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.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) called this the "Religious Coercion Amendment" and warned that under this amendment, the religion of the majority would be favored by the government. The rule of the majority would serve to determine the content of religious exercises, what prayers would be recited, and what religious symbols would be displayed. This might be fine in a church, but not in government settings.
Starting in the 1800s and through most of the 20th century, children in public schools sat through official school prayers which had a specific Protestant character. Catholic and Jewish children — at the time the primary "minority faiths" — either had to participate or were singled out for ostracization. This continues today in some rural areas where local schools defy court orders and maintain official prayers.
The Supreme Court correctly ended this, but the Religious Right wishes to resurrect it when they call for an end to Supreme Court decisions strictly separating church and state. Whenever a religious zealot derides the current prohibitions against prayers in school or an official endorsement of religious symbols, we only need look to the de facto Protestant establishment which characterized the previous century in order to see the sort of society being sought.
Supporters of the Religious Freedom Amendment
Misrepresentations and insults were rampant among the supporters of the RFA. Tom DeLay (R-TX), said that "Today, our schools are filed with drugs and violence — it's time we made room for a little prayer instead." The obvious implication of DaLay's comments is that prayer and active religious belief would have a salutary effect on problems in schools. There is already room for prayer in our schools — and that room exists in the private conscience of each student.
Rep. James Traficant (D-OH) stated that "When God is omitted, evil will be permitted. In America, the judges don't govern; the people do. And the American people want prayer in school." Traficant had a history of complaining that there is something wrong or even immoral with people who don't happen to believe in his god. Traficant once claimed that people who believed in his god made much better parents, a curious sentiment from a person who went to jail due to criminal corruption.
Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) claimed that "the constitution give us freedom of religion, not freedom from religion." If that were true, then there would be little need for the RFA, so we can see that there is something amiss right away. But Aderholt is incorrect — he repeated a myth promoted by cynical and even deceitful believers.
Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, the amendment's chief sponsor, went even further and made numerous factual errors in his attempts to portray his bill as something which might promote freedom. I refuted some of the most egregious errors in an open letter which I wrote to him and which was graciously published by the Washington Times on 6/5/98.
Church/State Separation Provides for Religious Freedom
Religion has flourished in America precisely because of the separation of church and state. Far from being banned in our public life, religion suffuses our culture, media, and almost everything we do. It is a rare politician who doesn't invoke the Christian god in their speeches, and religious leaders are active in both the community.
The political consequences of this effort were put very succinctly by Tom DeLay (R-TX), who said that "This vote will provide an opportunity for Members of the House to be put on record as supporters of religious freedoms and "One nation under God." The clear implication of DeLay's statement is that the members of the House have to be put on record as voting for or against God. That's why mixing religion and politics is dangerous. When a politician starts arguing that he is on the side of God and his opponents are on the "other" side, it's no longer simply a political disagreement.
Unfortunately, this fight isn't over. The supporters of the Religious Freedom Amendment haven't gone away and few, if any, have been convinced that it was a bad idea. All of these issues will continue to reappear in the guise of more laws and election-year rhetoric. Freedom isn't something which can be granted and then ignored, it must be constantly defended and reinforced. Freedom isn't the normal social or political condition for humans — it is unusual and difficult to maintain.