Constitutional amendment would undermine First Amendment

By, April 2006

On June 30, 2005, all but unnoticed by the major media, one hundred Republican members of Congress introduced an amendment to the Constitution that would permit prayer and religious symbols in public settings. The measure, House Joint Resolution 57, which would effectively cancel out the First Amendment, reads in full:

To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience:
—The people retain the right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including schools.
—The United States and the States shall not establish any official religion nor require any person to join in prayer or religious activity.

The principal author is Rep. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, whose earlier effort to amend the Constitution was defeated in 1998 (see below). To see the printed version of H.J.Res. 57 listing the sponsors, please click here.

Rep. Istook's Introductory Statement

In his remarks introducing H.J.Res. 57, Rep. Istook scarcely sugar-coated the measure's clear intent: to impose Christianity at school and in the public square. His conclusion, especially, left little to inference:

The courts are using the First Amendment to attack religion, when they should be using it to protect religion.

The proper standard is the one applied by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948 involving the Pledge of Allegiance. They ruled that no child can be compelled to say it, but their opposition to it does not give them the right to silence their classmates who do wish to say it. That is the standard that should be applied to religious expression on public property, and the standard that the Religious Freedom Amendment follows. Abstain if you wish, but don't try to censor everyone else. It's a lesson in tolerance that we all need to learn.

Please click here to read Rep. Istook's entire introductory statement.

A Congressional website "billboard" for H.J. Res. 57 leaves even less to the imagination.

That public billboard leaves little to the imagination about the sponsors' intent. The quote that follows is from a "Q and A" page on the site, which has the Congressional seal on every page.

So I'm a school student, and a fellow student wants to say a prayer over the intercom and I don't want to hear it. Or, I'm a parent and I don't want my children to hear it.

Are my children protected? Where do they go? Do they have to leave the room? Don't they have the same rights as those saying the prayer in that room?

The parent is making two incorrect assumptions in this scenario. The first is an underlying assumption that hearing a prayer, or expression from one religion, is inherently harmful, much less unconstitutional. The second error is that the amendment would somehow DICTATE prayer. This amendment does not mandate prayer. It expressly prohibits such a mandate. But the Constitution never guaranteed to protect us from hearing something with which we disagree. Students (and others) who engage in religious expression should no longer be singled out for censorship. Our religious rights should not be lost when we set foot on public property.

TOPIC: Church-state Separation