Do Religionists Have "Special" Rights?

Supreme Court Will Rule On
Religious Freedom Restoration Act
Are "Religious Rights" Distinct From
Civil Liberties For Citizens?
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

October 16, 1996

The nation's highest court agreed yesterday to deliberate the constitutionality of the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act and whether or not churches are exempt from certain laws and regulations which apply to other groups and private citizens. At issue is a dispute between the City of Boerne, Texas, and regional Roman Catholic Authorities who say that they have the right to demolish a church in the local historic district despite regulations and ordinances prohibiting it from doing so. City officials are invoking historic preservation laws to stop the wrecking ball and a project to replace the present 70-year-old structure with a more contemporary building.

But church officials are not challenge the constitutionality of zoning ordinances or even historic preservation regulations per se; the Catholic archdiocese maintains that religious groups are exempt from restrictions (which apply to other segments of society including private individuals and business owners) under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That 1993 law was design to "accommodate" religious belief and exercise; the current edition of USA TODAY notes that "the law tells federal courts how to weigh disputes that arise when governments seek to enforce general laws in ways that impinge on religion."

While the RFRA has been considered a major victory for religious groups, and has even attracted the support of some civil liberties organizations, critics and First Amendment activists charge that it creates a category of "special rights" for religious believers, allowing them to engage in conduct banned or forbidden for others. The Act requires that government officials must convince judges that they have a "compelling interest" in enforcing laws which may restrict religious exercise. The impetus for RFRA was a 1990 decision which permitted Oregon to enforce drug laws against members of the Native American Church, a sect which uses hallucinogenic peyote in its religious rituals.

Texas officials will argue, however, that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act amounts to an unwarranted expansion of federal power. Supreme Court watchers say that deliberations in the case make predicting the outcome highly uncertain. While several court justices have voting records which reflect a desire to curb congressional powers, others stand by supporting "religious liberty."

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RFRA -- More "Special Rights" For Believers?

Religious Freedom Restoration Act:
"Special Rights" For Believers
And Church Groups?
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

October 28, 1996

A decision made earlier this month by the U.S. Supreme Court to test the Religious Freedom Restoration Act once again is highlighting the emotionally charged question of state-church separation, and the issue of so-called "religious rights."

Many religious groups and legal supporters charge that the scales have been tipped unfairly against the rights of believers and in favor of state-church separation. Religious organizations differ on how they seek to remedy this perceived injustice; conservative groups support some version of a Religious Equality Amendment (REA), although more liberal and mainline churches see that specific legislation as either unnecessary, or a violation of the intent of the First Amendment. Increasingly, though, religious movements across the political and theological spectrum are throwing their weight behind the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Congress passed the act in 1993 after the Supreme Court had ruled that governments could pass laws or enforce regulations even if they impinged upon religious exercise but applied to other segments of society. . That decision came in the case of Smith v. Employment Division, and involved the claims of a Native American religious sect that it should be permitted to use the hallucinogenic substance peyote as part of its ritual. Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia -- in a decision which stunned many religious groups -- said that the Constitution only guards against harmful discrimination when a religious faith is discriminated against and given unequal treatment.

Earlier this month, the high court announced that it would hear the case of St. Peter Church in Boerne, Texas. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese announced that it intended to demolish most of the present structure; city officials and preservationists, though, insisted that the building -- erected in 1923 -- was subject to local ordinances regulating historic structures. Boerne Mayor Patrick Heath compared the famous church to the town's century-old library and other structures.

In the Boerne case, the court must grapple with two fundamental questions. The first involves the right of Congress to pass legislation which, according to some constitutional scholars, involves congressional intrusion into federal court decisions, and interferes with zoning and legislative powers of state and local governments. The other point concerns under what circumstances government has a "compelling interest" in placing restrictions and limits on religious exercise.

For Atheists and separationists, the Boerne case raises a question at the root of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act -- should religious believers and churches have "special rights" which are not guaranteed to other citizens? Should certain believers be exempt from laws or other restrictions by virtue of belief, which non-believers (and even other religious groups) are compelled to follow?

"Absolutely not," opined Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists. "RFRA highlights the difference between those of us who see the First Amendment protecting state-church separation, and those groups who want to create 'special rights' for believers. Why should religious people enjoy special privileges which don't apply equally to the rest of society?"

Johnson said that the group was "absolutely opposed" to RFRA, and added that "only people who think religious is a positive benefit to society would support inventing these special rights for churches."

RFRA has attracted the support of many religious groups and even organizations which have been nominally concerned with state-church separation. The reaction against the Smith decision united the National Association of Evangelicals, Religious Action Center for Reformed Judaism, and even the liberal People for the American Way. The outcome in the Boerne case could determine just how far government can go in "protecting" religious exercise, or in granting churches and believers an extraordinary category of privileges under the mantle of "religious liberty."

Right vs. Left

RFRA is viewed by many as the "alternative" embraced by liberal and mainstream religious groups to a Religious Equality Amendment, a keystone for more conservative groups like the Christian Coalition. Two versions of the Religious Equality Amendment have circulated through Congressional committees for the past 18 months. The so-called "Hyde version", dubbed the Religious Freedom Amendment, was on the legislative fast track as late as July, 1996 when it was quickly introduced and then vanished from the political radar screen. Both versions of the REA would re-introduce some form of prayer and religious exercise into public schools and other government institutions; and supporters insist that the measure is necessary to protect the "religious liberties" of believers.

More progressive and mainstream church groups, though, oppose the REA and see it as either coercive or unnecessary. Their solution seems to be a defense of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Should the court rule against RFRA, expect more pressure for passage of some kind "religious equality" legislation. Striking down RFRA may provide political ammunition for the Christian Coalition and other religious right groups for their argument that "faith is under attack" and that "government is actively hostile toward religion."

Both the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Religious Equality Amendment constitute attacks on First Amendment state-church separation, albeit from different ends of the theo-political spectrum. Religious conservatives support a "pro-active" blending of governmental and religious ritual in the form of school prayer, religious monuments and displays on public property and stronger limits on public school curriculums which run contrary to dogmas in areas like sex education and evolution. Liberal groups appear to be demanding that government either create a category of "special rights" for religious practice, or limit the enforcement of certain laws in the case of religious belief and exercise. RFRA could conceivably be used to argue that churches maintain a special tax-exempt status, and not be constrained by laws and regulations which apply to businesses, private individuals and other sectors of society.

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Gingrich Probe May Determine Fate Of Religious Legislation

Gingrich Problem May Be Key
To 1997 Religious Agenda In Congress
Power May Shift From Speaker To Capitol Hill Committees
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

November 20, 1996

House Republicans affirmed their support for Speaker Newt Gingrich this morning, and in a caucus vote decided to back the controversial 53-year-old congressman to that position. That move should pave the way for an acclamation voice vote in Congress to keep Gingrich in the post he has held since 1994, when Republicans captured control of both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate for the first time in 40 years.

But behind the scenes, there are subtle power shifts which could have consequences for a number of pieces of proposed legislation being pushed by religious groups. These include an over-ride of President Clinton's veto of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban, a Religious Equality Amendment, action on Parental Rights, vouchers and other financial assistance to religious schools, and a ban on homosexuals in the military.

* Gingrich and groups like the Christian Coalition have enjoyed a love-hate relationship ever since the 1994 GOP sweep in the congressional races. While the Republicans were trying to move their Contract With America through the legislative labyrinth, the Coalition unveiled its own social agenda ("Contract With the American Family") which emphasized "family values" and "religious liberty." When Gingrich promised to deliver on issues like a school prayer amendment, though, the congress emphasized economic legislation and left some GOP religious right elements feeling "betrayed." In the 1996 GOP convention, the Coalition managed to keep most of the religious groups in the party ranks, trading hard-line positions on abortion, prayer and other issues for the lackluster candidacy of Bob Dole.

This month's elections produced mixed results for the Republicans, and the Coalition. The GOP managed to do better than expected in congressional races, but lost the White House race to Mr. Clinton. That fact has stimulated considerable speculation that Reed & Co. may be in the back seat when the 105th Congress convenes in January.

* Gingrich has an ethics cloud hanging over his leadership and political fortunes, and has to weather the results of House committee probe scheduled for release in January. Political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia told the Christian Science Monitor that "Everything depends on the results of the ethics investigation. If it's critical of him (Gingrich) it will be difficult for him even to rehabilitate himself. If it exonerates him, he has the opportunity to do so, but it will be tough."

But House Republicans are already making changes in their strategy for next year. News reports suggest that the GOP Caucus is transferring power "from the Speaker back to the committee chairman," a move which the Monitor suggests "would include more people in the decision-making process and should placate GOP moderates, who complained that they were left out of the process last session."

It may have just the opposite effect, though. Gingrich acted as a pragmatic stop-break on some pieces of religious right legislation in the 104th session; a greater role for committee and subcommittee heads like Rep. Henry Hyde could lead to a slew of key religious right proposals finding their way to the House and Senate for legislative action.

And House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) was reelected to his position: it was Armey who resurrected a school prayer proposal in the form of a "Religious Freedom Amendment." Although the RFA didn't make it to the floor for a vote, it is expected that another attempt will be made to pass this legislation sometime next year.

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Religious Genital Mutilation On Rise In U.S.

Female Circumcision Rite
Is Growing Problem In U.S.
"Family Values," Religious Superstition
Obstacles to Ending Genital Mutilation
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

December 28, 1996

The practice of female circumcision, the cutting and mutilation of young girls' genitals, is becoming a major problem within some immigrant communities in the U.S. according to government and media reports, including today's New York Times. For many, the rite is justified by a particular interpretation of Islamic law, or based on African religious-tribal practices.

The Times notes that "Caseworkers and federal health officials say stopping the practice of female genital cutting among the small, but growing, population of African refugees and immigrants in the United States, will take more than simply passing a law. It will mean finding a way to change the minds of parents..."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there will be more than 15,000 genital circumcision rites performed on young girls in America this year alone. The practice is considered "commonplace" in 28 nations. One immigrant mother told the Times that she was taught that genital mutilation "was a way of ensuring a girl's good behavior ... It prevents them from running wild." She added that "Women should be meek, simple and quite, not aggressive and outgoing."

Cultural, Legal Difficulties

Combating the practice is difficult, although this year congress directed federal health agencies to begin finding ways of reaching out to immigrant communities and educate them about the possible harm in mutilation rites. The practice was also made punishable by up to five years in prison.

"But the law will be difficult to enforce," notes the Times. Indeed, the "family values" embraced by America's religious groups may prove to be an obstacle to getting cases of such mutilation stopped or even reported. "Doctors who spot cases of genital cutting are likely to be reluctant to report parents to authorities for fear of breaking up close-knit families and sending well-meaning mothers and fathers to prisons, child-abuse experts say."

Secrecy, and even acceptance of the rite within ethnic communities is also a problem. Health officials are not generally aware of female genital mutilation, and may not be looking for it.

But two pieces of "religious rights" legislation may, in effect, legalize the practice, or certainly make ending it a lot harder. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act places the legal burden on authorities in justifying any action which may "burden" religious expression and ritual. RFRA grew out of shamanic and other religious rituals practice by Native Americans; it essentially creates a class of "special rights" which may be exercised if practiced within the context of religious organizations.

And forms of the Religious Equality Amendment may put a chilling effect on children's rights agencies. Already, a number of fundamentalist groups object to children even receiving periodic physical exams or instruction on health-related matters. That may make detecting cases of genital mutilation a lot harder.

The First Task: Education

But many critics of the practice recognize that ending female genital mutilation ultimately requires educating people and radically changing values about the status of women and gender roles. Unfortunately, that task is being diluted to the need for "sensitivity" and even finding symbolic alternatives to the practice. At Seattle's Harborview Medical Center, for instance, authorities agreed to a procedure involving what the Times described as "making a ritual nick of the prepuce, a fold of skin that caps the clitoris and that is analogous to the foreskin of the penis, with no removal of tissue."

"They said they saw the procedure as an alternative to cutting."

Critics charged that the "alternative" was still degrading to women, though, it was soon abandoned.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is reportedly organizing meetings of advocacy and other groups which work with African refugees, and may even ask Muslim religious leaders to issue a statement explaining that the Koran does not require the practice.

Ending the ritual may prove to be difficult; or, the values which result in the barbaric practice may simply manifest themselves in some other form Female genital mutilation has historically been just one of a number of stratagems aimed at controlling women. And immigrant groups may feel the same anxieties and threats now being expressed in the "alpha male backlash" resonating throughout the culture, manifest in events like the Million Man March and he Promise Keepers movement. Ultimately, the war against female circumcision -- and other expressions of mystical superstition -- will be won only through a change in values and attitudes.

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"Kabuki" Religionists Support RFRA

Religious Groups Join In Call
For "Special Rights" Legislation
Muslims, X-ian Fundamentalists,
Humanists & Others Defend RFRA
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

January 15, 1997

Should religious groups enjoy "special rights" by virtue of belief in a deity? Should churches, temples and other religious bodies be exempt from laws which apply to everyone else? And should religious belief be a criteria in giving persons special protections not enjoyed by the rest of the population?

A coalition of religious groups think they should, and yesterday urged the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Under the title of Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion, the group also intervened with an amicus ("friend of the court") brief in the case of City of Boerne, Tx. v. P.F. Flores, Archbishop of San Antonio et al. That case is becoming the constitutional litmus test for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, legislation drafted and written by religious organizations.

A Tainted History

The RFRA controversy goes back to a 1990 Supreme Court decision known as Smith v. Employment Division. Smith involved the case of an Oregon Indian tribe's use of the hallucinogenic drug peyote in sacred ceremonies. Although such use was a violation of the law, the tribe insisted that the Native American church should still have to right to use the substance as an exercise in religious liberty. Attorneys for the church insisted that the state could not "substantially burden" religious exercise without demonstrating a "compelling interest" in doing so.

Ironically, it was one of the more conservative and faith-driven Justices of the high court, Antonin Scalia, who disagreed. Admitting that the standard cited in Smith would place minority faiths at a "disadvantage," Scalia suggested that this was an "unavoidable consequence of democratic government."

No sooner had the Smith decision been handed down than religious organizations throughout the country swung into action, and enlisted 55 constitutional scholars in drafting the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and urging a re-hearing on Smith. Twenty religious groups were initially involved in the effort representing such diverse organizations as the National Association of Evangelicals to People for the American Way.

American Atheists was one of the few groups speaking out against the dangers of RFRA. The group cited the dangerous precedent of inventing "special rights" for religious groups that persons gained apparently by virtue of merely being part of a religion. In other words, actions which were illegal for one segment of society would be tolerated as long as they were carried out under the guise of religious exercise.

Enter St. Peter Church

The constitutional test of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act will be a case involving St. Peter Church, a 70-year-old building in the town of Boerne, Texas. When the Archdiocese announced plans in October to demolish the structure, city officials promptly invoked local historic preservation ordinances to stop the project. The city's Major declared that the church was a "community landmark," and that "this community values its visual and historical heritage, whether it's a church or a 100-year-old library."

The church is not arguing against the validity or constitutionality of local laws affecting historic structures -- only whether there should be an exemption in the case of religious organizations. The Archdiocese cites the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would require the city of Boerne to convince a federal judge that it has a "compelling interest" in "burdening" a religious group.

Are Some More "Equal" Than Others ?

But critics in the Boerne and other RFRA-related controversies insist that the Act offers "equal protection" to religious groups and believers, but not to the rest of the population. Under RFRA, the City of Boerne (or any other government entity) could enforce zoning, preservation or other kinds of laws on private citizens and businesses, but would have to make a stronger case for doing so when dealing with churches and religions. Opponents argue that the RFRA thus violates the Establishment Clause by providing religions with special privileges over all other types of belief or non-belief.

A Rogues Gallery Of Religious And "Kabuki" Religionists

Support for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has come from a wide range of religious organizations, as well as "Kabuki" religious groups which ordinarily boast of their secularist or separationist credentials. The former category includes the American Baptist Churches, American Jewish Committee, Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, Christian Legal Society, Episcopal Church, Guru Gobind Sing Foundation, Presbyterian Church, National Sikh Center, Muslim Prison Foundation and the Christian-Reconstructionist Home School Legal Defense Association. The reactionary Traditional Values Coalition is also a member, along with the Rabbinical Council of America, United Church of Christ, and the Church of Scientology.

Curiously, the American Humanist Association is also listed as a cheerleader for the RFRA, along with American Civil Liberties Union (a great disappointment!), Americans for Religious Liberty, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The amicus brief was prepared by a panel of members drawn from many of the coalition member groups. Authors of the document include: Marc D. Stern (American Jewish Congress), Oliver S. Thomas (National Council of Churches), Steven McFarland (Christian Legal Society), Elliot Mincberg (People for the American Way), Steven Green (Americans United), Michael Farris (Home School Legal Defense Association) and Melissa Rogers (Baptist Joint Committee).

Arguments in the case will be heard by the high court on February 19; a decision is expected before the end of June.

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High Court To Decide -- "Special Rights" For Believers?

High Court To Hear
Boerne v. Flores Tomorrow
The Case Has Split Separationist Ranks,
And Could Decide The Fate Of
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

February 18, 1997

The United States Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments tomorrow in a First Amendment case that has profound implications for state-church separation, and the status of religious organizations in the society. CITY OF BOERNE v. FLORES will clarify the extent to which governments may "interfere" with religious exercise, or whether religious groups will be exempt from laws and regulations that apply to other segments of the society, including businesses and private individuals. It is a case which has also split the ranks of state-church separationists, and united religious groups throughout the nation.

The Wall Versus A Crumbling Church

The BOERNE case began last fall when the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in Texas announced that it wanted to demolish most of a 70-year-old church in the small community of Boerne, situated in rolling hill country near San Antonio. City officials, though, considered the twin towered church a "historic structure" which fell under local zoning regulations; Boerne's Mayor, Patrick Heath, said that the community "values its visual and historic heritage, whether it's a church or our 100-year-old library.

The local dispute quickly took on a national dimension, though, when church officials then justified its position using the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Other religious groups including Hindus, Scientologists, Muslims and Evangelicals formed a coalition to support the Archdiocese; and in mid-November, the high court agreed to hear the case of CITY OF BOERNE v. FLORES, in effect deciding on the constitutionality of the RFRA.

RFRA -- "Smith" And Special Rights For Believers?

What about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act? For decades, most mainline religious groups were content to invoke the "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment which guarantees the right of religious believers to worship as they see fit. The "free exercise" clause was balanced with the "establishment clause" that enjoined the state from "establishing" religion. In decisions such as LEMON v. KURTZMAN, the court interpreted the "establishment" clause to mean that government could not engage in any action which advanced religious belief, or one religion over another; could not undertake any action the purpose of which was not primarily secular in purpose; and must avoid "excessive entanglement" with religion.

In 1990, a little-known case called SMITH v. EMPLOYMENT DIVISION resulted in a new ruling from the courts and, ultimately, the passage three years later of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. SMITH involved the question of whether or not the state had a legitimate interesting in regulating or banning an Oregon Indian tribe's use of peyote in sacred rituals. Ironically, the majority opinion of the court was written by Antonin Scalia, no friend of state-church separation. Scalia mused that in his opinion, the Constitution did not give "equal protection" to religious exercise, but only guarded against discrimination when one faith is singled out by a state for "unequal treatment." Scalia also admitted that the ruling might place minority faiths at a "disadvantage", especially when the government interest in intervening was based on concerns of health, safety or public order. He termed this an "unavoidable consequence of democratic government."

Religious interests reacted promptly, and pushed for a rehearing of SMITH which was turned down by the high court. A coalition representing 55 religious organizations then spent two years crafting and promoting a Religious Freedom Restoration Act. RFRA was passed by Congress in 1993, and provided that governments may not "substantially burden" religious exercise without showing a "compelling interest."

But critics have noted that whatever the implications of SMITH, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act tipped the balance in favor of organized religion, and created a class of "special rights" for believers. Presumably, a wide range of behaviors proscribed by laws would be available to religious groups. Churches and temples may be exempt from, say, zoning laws or parking regulations, even though such ordinances might apply to nonreligious organizations such as private businesses or individuals. Some separationists worry that RFRA could presumably be used to justify forms of child abuse, such as withholding of medical treatment; they note that the Christian Scientist religion is active in the Coalition to defend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Others insist that RFRA is just "unfair" in that it treats religious groups and believers as a privileged group, exempt from the regulations and laws which apply to everyone else. They point out that if churches should be immune from meddlesome laws, so should the entire society.

A Split In Separationist Ranks

While RFRA and BOERNE v. FLORES have had a unifying effect on churches and other religious groups, the case has split the ranks of those who defend state-church separation. The situation become even more pronounced last month when the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion filed a brief in support of the Roman Catholic Church (specifically, Archbishop P.F. Flores). The Coalition represented most of the religious waterfront in the country, including the American Baptist Churches, American Jewish Committee, American Muslim Council, Baptist Joint Committee, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Christian Legal Society, Episcopal Church, Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, National Sikh Center, Mystic Temple of Light, National Association of Evangelicals, Peyote Way Church of God, Presbyterian Church, Soka-Gakkai International, Native American Church of North America and the United Methodist Church.

There were other groups listed as well, though, including some identified with state-church separationism. Also supporting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the BOERNE v. FLORES case were the American Humanist Association, American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Americans for Religious Liberty and the American Ethical Union.

American Atheists, however, distanced itself from supporting the brief in BOERNE and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In statements to the media, American Atheists President Ellen Johnson declared that the Act was "bad law" and "created a range of 'special rights' for that segment of the population which happens to embrace religious belief."

"Church & State" -- Measured Words And A Defense Of RFRA

The magazine "Church & State" published by a Baptist group known as Americans United for Separation of Church and State has been a premier source of separationist views; in addition, AU has litigated a number of important cases, and done much to defend the "Wall of Separation" between government and religion now under attack by the Christian right.

The February 1997 edition, however, outlines the group's defense of RFRA, using measured words to defend the "religious liberty" aspect of this important case. C&S's emphasis seems to emphasize the threat to religious exercise if government is not restrained. The publication charges that Judge Scalia "all but eviscerated the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause" in the SMITH v. EMPLOYMENT DIVISION ruling, and quotes Justice Robert Jackson who wrote in a 1943 court ruling: "The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One's right to ... freedom of worship and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no election."

Even so, RFRA may not the way to defend religious options and simultaneously protect "equality" under the law without creating a class of special rights and privileges enjoyed by a religious elite. "Church & State" warns of "unthinking majorities" which might "trample the rights of minorities"; but why should the "rights of minorities" be protected when the same trampling may be done to nonreligious groups and individuals?

Holding A Religious Equality Amendment "Hostage"?

"Church & State" also suggests that in addition to "religious liberty," another reason exists for upholding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The publication warns that "Should the Supreme Court strike down the RFRA, a renewed campaign" for a so-called Religious Equality Amendment "is sure to emerge." The magazine aptly points out that "Several Religious Right leaders are already talking about the added impetus a defeat for the RFRA would give the amendment crusade."

But does the threat of a Religious Equality Amendment held hostage justify RFRA?

The is little evidence to suggest that groups like the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family, in their efforts to pass a Religious Equality Amendment, will suddenly pick up large blocks of votes on either side of the congressional aisle if the Supreme Court strikes down the RFRA. A constitutional amendment faces considerably more obstacles than does standard legislation; indeed, the religious right couldn't muster sufficient votes during the 104th Congress to override President Clinton's veto of the "Partial Birth Abortion Ban," admittedly an equally controversial and emotional issue.

Similarly, there is no evidence that upholding the constitutionality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act will magically appease the Christian Coalition and other groups intent on putting prayer back into public schools and instituting other policies included in a Religious Equality Amendment. It could well be argued that supporting RFRA merely coopts "liberal" religious and separation efforts, and may discredit such organizations in the future.

CITY OF BOERNE v. FLORES will prove to be a complex case, one certainly that legal experts, separationists and historians will debate long after it is decided. And separationists remain honestly and sincerely divided over the issues and nuances of RFRA as well.

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A Church, A Strip Joint, and Zoning Laws
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

February 25, 1997

As AANEWS readers know, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is being contested in a crucial Supreme Court case, CITY OF BOERNE v. FLORES. Arguments began last week, and a decision may be rendered as early as April. At question is whether or not the City of Boerne, Texas, has the right to apply zoning and historical ordinances to the local Roman Catholic Church. The Archdiocese says "No Way!" and has received enthusiastic support from just about every major and minor religious denomination and sect in the country. Jews, Protestants, Unitarians, Humanists, Muslims, New Agers and even Scientologists have joined the cause, insisting that freedom of religion essentially gives churches, temples and other religious groups the right to pretty much do as they choose -- even ignore a zoning ordinance.

Of course a private individual or private business can't claim such a "god-given" exemption, which is why American Atheists takes the position that the RFRA creates a class of "special rights" for believers.

But back to zoning, which the Archbishop of San Antonio says he has the right to ignore. We wonder if Archbishop Flores, and all of those fellow religious liberty boosters, would care to step up and support the Take One Lounge.

Seems that in Miami, a local strip joint known as the Take One Lounge -- the kind of place where guys pay inflated prices for drinks and a voyeuristic fling -- has filed a complain with the city because the Church of God of Holiness of Christ has purchased the building next door. We know who will have the most customers; but the owners of Take One are worried because a Miami ordinance prohibits nude entertainment within 500 feet of a church. Club owner Bob Raley insists that his business was established in strict compliance with the local zoning code.

The Take One's owner told UPI: "It would be reverse discrimination if a church were permitted to be established within 500 feet of my business." He adds that if the church moves in and the full zoning code is enforced, his business and property worth would plummet.

There's no word yet on what the Church of God of Holiness of Christ -- is this a cathedral? -- would do once it sets up shop. Would the CofGofHofC then want the Take One run out of town, or at least out of the neighborhood?

City officials thus far are supporting the Take One; after all, they, and possibly church officials, could also be libel for a "taking" of value if the club is shut down. The congregation of the church says it has spent some $200,000 already on its property; and Miami Commissioner J.L. Plummer says he is upset over being placed in the questionable position of "holding up a girlie show and putting down a church."

(Thanks to Freematt's Pro-Individual Rights Alert for this!)

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Pray In Closet, Not Courtroom, Says Bible
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

February 25, 1997

The heady and infectious virus of religious jingoism may spread. Recall that Alabama Governor Fob James has grabbed headlines for supporting prayer and the Ten Commandments in his state's courtrooms, especially that of Judge Roy Moore. James has now received a "letter of support" from South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, who told his Southern neighbor: "I wanted to let you know that I admire your stand and support your efforts wholeheartedly." Displaying his incredible ignorance, Beasley repeated the Christian Coalition refrain that "As governors, we swear to uphold the Constitution, and I believe that is just what you are doing. The ACLU and, sadly, some federal judges, apparently just cannot seem to understand that the First Amendment does not require the removal of God from our courthouses and statehouses."

Beasley adds that he has a copy of the Ten Commandments posted outside his office door, "reminding me each day of the laws God handed down thousands of years ago ... to borrow one of your phrases, it would take the force of arms to remove my copy of the Ten Commandments -- and I would be right there on the front line!"

Both governors appear to be equally ignorant of their Bible verse, as well. Perhaps if they choose to ignore the First Amendment, or the writings of Thomas Jefferson on the need for a "Wall of Separation" between government and religion, they should better acquaint themselves with St. Matthew, Chapter 6, Verses 5-6:

"And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are; for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men ... But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou has shut thy door, pray to they Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly."

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Coalition Promises Big Bucks For Prayer Amendment

Coalition Will Spend $2 Million
To Push Prayer Amendment
Already There Are Splits Within
Religious-Political Ranks: Pressure On Gingrich
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

March 24, 1997

The Christian Coalition has announced that it will spend $2 million in advertising and lobbying to support its Religious Freedom Amendment unveiled yesterday at a press conference on Capitol Hill. The group's executive director, Ralph Reed, told media: "There is no issue and there will be no legislation that will take a higher priority."

The proposed amendment's author, Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) said the measure was "the only way" to end the alleged hostility of government, including thirty years of unfavorable Supreme Court rulings, to the expression of religious statements in the public square. Istook added that his version of the RFA would permit a wide expression of public religious ritual, including prayer in public school classrooms and in government buildings and sponsored events; it would also permit cities and states to fund religious schools through voucher programs and other schemes.

"This is to restore the protection of our precious religious freedoms and liberties which have been eroded by a steady onslaught of court decisions," declared Mr. Istook. "Courts have gone far beyond outlawing prayer in many public school settings. They have aided a systematic campaign into strip religious symbols, references and heritage from the public stage ... This is our peaceful answer to that assault."

The amendment is surprisingly brief, reading: "To secure the people's right to acknowledge God: The right to pray or acknowledge religious belief, heritage or tradition on public property, including public schools, shall not be infringed. The government shall not compel joining in prayer, initiate or compose school prayers, discriminate against or deny a benefit on account of religion."

Reed added that the $2 million prayer war chest would be targeted to about 100 congressional districts throughout the nation. In addition to mass media ads and direct mail, the Coalition said that it would be flying "victims" of religious discrimination whose activities had allegedly been squelched by school and other authorities to public events in the target districts.

Carte Blanche For Wall Demolition

Critics quickly condemned yesterday's announcement that the Coalition would be introducing the amendment formally after Congress returns from recess on April 7.

Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists, said that religious group were vitalized by the prospect of enacting the Partial Birth Abortion Ban. "They're feeling motivated now with the success of that legislation, and religious group will now try to link issues like abortion and public prayer under an umbrella term like 'values" in order to sway public opinion."

Johnson called the Religious Freedom Amendment "another assault on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment." She added: "It's outrageous that our paid representatives in Washington are being distracted from legitimate problems by proposals like this one."

Ms. Johnson also promised an "all-out fight" to educate the public about the Religious Freedom Amendment.

Splits In The Ranks

Yesterday's press conference suggested that after several years of haggling over the exact wording of a prayer amendment, various factions ranging from the Christian Legal Society to the Christian Coalition had finally closed ranks and agreed on the precise language of the bill. Originally proposed in 1994 as the Religious Equality Amendment, the legislation gradually drew opposition from certain organizations who insisted that it was not inclusive enough and did not fully protect the interests of religious minorities. Two versions of the amendment -- one by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), the other by Mr. Istook -- were both introduced and failed to reach the floor of congress for a vote. Last year, a compromise version was floated by House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas); it too failed, but was considered by some pundits to be a quick ruse in order to get elected officials "on the record" so their votes could be included in Christian Coalition voter's guides.

Yesterday, there were signs that the rift among various factions had finally been healed. Rep. Istook had been working with various religious organizations since 1994, including the Christian Legal Society and the Family Research Council, in crafting the amendment. In addition, yesterday's launch of the Religious Freedom Amendment featured evangelist William Murray, son of Atheist leader Madalyn Murray O'Hair, both of whom had fought the famous 1963 MURRAY v. CURLETT case which helped to remove mandatory prayer and Bible verse recitation from the public schools. Murray had originally opposed the Istook version; his participation at the microphone yesterday with Coalition Director Ralph Reed also suggested agreement on the amendment.

But no sooner had yesterday's Capitol Hill prayer-fest ended than the facade of unity and agreement began showing cracks. The Washington Post observed that "Even those sympathetic to a religious freedom amendment say they are troubled by the wording because by omitting whose 'right' it is to 'acknowledge religious belief,' it could be interpreted as 'the government's right.' " The general counsel of the Southern Baptist Convention questioned the measure, as did his counterpart from the Christian Legal Society. Steve McFarland of CLS warned that different governments across the country could "balkanize America." He cited a case where the city council in Salt Lake City may choose to erect a statue of Brigham Young, while in Seattle a monument to the "Earth Goddess" might be built. "In each community," noted McFarland, "whoever can wrestle political power over city hall can get their faith 'acknowledged,' i.e. preferred."

A spokesperson for Rep. Hyde's office said that the congressman does not intend to promote his version of the amendment, and insists "there has to be a single legislative vehicle to move this debate forward." And Dick Armey lined up quickly to support the Istook draft.

But Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla), head of the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution balked at the Istook amendment telling reporters, "This is not a done deal as far as I'm concerned, and I will do everything in my power to make certain that the Republican leadership does not try to railroad this through..."

Hearings on the measure are slated for this spring.

There is a side bar, though, to the move to introduce the Istook amendment, which suggests that even for the Christian Coalition, some of the current Republican leadership -- including House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- is "soft" on the religious right's theo-political agenda for America ...

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Religious "Freedom" Amendment -- Threat To First Amendment

Atheists Charge Religious Freedom Amendment
Is "Wrecking Ball" Against
First Amendment Wall Of Separation
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

March 27, 1997

(The following was released to news media by the American Atheists...)

The proposed Religious Freedom Amendment being promoted by the Christian Coalition is a "wrecking ball directed straight at the wall of separation between state and church," said American Atheists President Ellen Johnson.

The measure, to be introduced by Rep. John Istook, disingenuously claims that its purpose it to "secure the people's right to acknowledge God."

But Ms. Johnson observed that "religious people in America already have the right to practice their religion on their own time and at their own expense. What this amendment does is turn government -- and our public schools -- into pulpits for religious proselytizing." Ms. Johnson added that the proposed legislation "guts the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment."

Ron Barrier, National Media Coordinator for American Atheists, opined: "Mr. Reed and Rep. Istook seem to be outdoing each other for the title of 'Demolition Man' when it comes to destroying state-church separation in America." Mr. Barrier observed that the 52-word amendment had nothing to do with "freedom" and everything to do with "special rights" for religion.

"It simply means that any religious group can use any public venue, including a public school classroom, as a 'worship zone.' It allows the religious industry to be the only business that can hawk its products unregulated on government property to minor children. It brazenly violates the rights of anyone who doesn't want to listen, including the 10% of the American population -- over 26,000,000 persons -- who identify themselves as Atheists, agnostics, or non-believers of some variety."

Ms. Johnson announced that American Atheists -- the group founded by Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who was a plaintiff in the 1963 MURRAY v. CURLETT which helped to remove mandatory prayer and Bible recitation in public schools -- would ask to present testimony to Congress when the issue is debated.

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Prayer Rally Supports Moore, Religious Freedom Amendment

Thousands Turn Out To Support Moore:
Coalition Director Calls For Push
On Religious Freedom Amendment
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

April 13, 1997

Standing before a sea of Ten Commandments posters, confederate flags and signs, Christian Coalition Director Ralph Reed yesterday told a prayer rally in Montgomery, Alabama that Christians had "no choice but to amend the Constitution of the United States" in order to practice their religion in the public square.

A crowd estimated at 25,000 persons turned out in front of the Alabama state capitol to support Etowah County Judge Roy Moore, who says that he intends to continue the practice of opening court proceedings with a Baptist orchestrated prayer, and will continue to post a copy of the Decalogue in his chambers. Moore's defiance of the First Amendment has become an altar call for religious activists throughout the country. Yesterday's rally, organized by a coalition of diverse religious and partitionist groups under the name "Save Our Commandments," was meant as a show of support for the embattled Judge and other public officials who have spoken out on behalf of prayer in government, including Governor Fob James. James has stated that he will support Moore and the continued use of prayer and religious icons in schools, court rooms and other government venues, and if necessary call out the Alabama national guard, state police, and the University of Alabama football squad.

Associated Press noted in an evening dispatch: "The demonstration for Judge Moore turned into a litany against liberal courts, abortion, television and civil libertarians." Christian rock music was broadcast from huge public address speakers as the crowd began to assemble. Along with American and Confederate flags were banners denouncing state-church separation and the American Civil Liberties Union. During the three-hour event, speakers praised Judge Moore, blasted "judicial activism" and called for support of the Religious Freedom Amendment recently reintroduced into the U.S. Congress.

Governor James told the enthusiastic crowd: "The greatest domestic need in the American political system today is a U.S. President who would refuse to enforce U.S. Supreme Court decisions based on judicial fraud ... and a U.S. Congress to impeach judges for subverting the Constitution." He added: "In a nation founded on principles that we were created by an almighty God, we teach our children that they evolved from reptiles and animals, and then we wonder why they act like animals."

Judge Moore also addressed the gathering, telling supporters that "Your presence today will send a message across this nation. This message is clear: We must -- nay, we will -- have God back in America again."

Extremism Carries The Day

It was evident from signs and banners, and the remarks made by various speakers, that the "Save Our Commandments" prayer rally became a focus for other causes, not the just the immediate question of prayer and religious display in public buildings. Extreme groups, some of them identified with Southern partitionism and secessionism had become sponsors of the Sunday event. When the bigoted and racist nature of one sponsors web site became obvious, the content was quickly deleted. The web page for the Council of Conservative Citizens dropped references to "mongrel races" and "multiracial mafias" .

But that didn't stop extreme views from being blared from the podium. Speaker George Grant, an evangelist linked to extreme charismatic organizations including the Morris Cerullo ministry and the Promise Keepers movement, cited an alleged decline in morality. Grant's 1993 book titled "Legislating Immorality: The Homosexual Movement Comes out of the Closet" cited Biblical justifications for executing homosexuals, and told readers: "Sadly, the 20th century saw this remarkable 2,000-year-old commitment suddenly dissipate." A number of signs throughout the crowd denounced gays and Ellen Degeneres, whose character on the sitcom "Ellen" will announce that she is a lesbian in an episode scheduled for next month. (Thus far, the only ABC affiliate which has announced that it will not air that controversial installment of "Ellen" is the station in Birmingham, Alabama.) At least one sign at the prayer rally invited civil rights attorney Morris Dees, the state head of the American Civil Liberties Union and Ms. Degeneres to "Burn in Hell."

Another speaker, Rev. Clifford Terrell told the group: "We are drawing a line in the sand and saying 'Devil, you've taken enough from us!'" That seemed to resonate with many of the Moore supporters; according to media reports, rally participants expressed approval for what they saw as a "new wave of Christian activism" on behalf of the Judge and the cause of prayer and religion in the public square.

Former presidential candidate Alan Keyes, head of the Declaration Foundation, told the rally that he sees a widespread religious revival sweeping the nation. "The greatest danger we face today is those who in the name of freedom tell us we must turn our backs on God," said Keyes adding, "When judges decide they should legislate from the bench, our legislature should impeach them."

Reed: Rally To Build Support For RFA

Despite the participation of extreme groups like the Southern League and Council of Conservative Citizens, Christian Coalition Director Ralph Reed decided to participate in the event. The coalition chapter in Alabama distributed thousands of pamphlets boosting the Sunday rally, and urged supporters from other states to participate. Reed told the crowd that "there are many more of your brothers and sisters who stand with you."

"We say to the federal court, we say to liberal media, we say to the ACLU, you have gone this far, you will go no further. "

Reed also declared that "Christians have no alternative left but to amend the constitution of the United States so we may exercise our faith in the public square," and called for support of the proposed Religious Freedom Amendment. He also encouraged the crowd to stand firm behind Judge Moore. "You do not stand alone ... As long as there's breath in our bodies, the Ten Commandments will never come down from this courtroom."

A similarly defiant attitude was enunciated by Bill Pryor, the top law enforcement officer in Alabama who serves as the state Attorney General. Pryor argued the original case in defense of Moore . He told the Montgomery rally that he became a lawyer so that he could fight the American Civil Liberties Union, and he used his time at the podium to condemn such evils as secularism and abortion. "God has chosen, through his son Jesus Christ, this time and this place for all Christians ... to save our country and save our courts," Pryor declared.

Little Media Recognition of Dissent

Unfortunately, early media coverage of yesterday's "Save Our Commandments" rally mentioned little of the protest organized by Adam Butler and individuals from the Alabama Freethought Association which originally initiated the suit against Judge Moore and his proselytizing in the courtroom. Today's Gadsden (Alabama) Times notes that Thomas Hart of AFA "and several others carried placards which advocated the separation of church and state." Mr. Hart is quoted: "I believe our Constitution was founded without religion and in order to protect that religion we have that separation." Another protester identified as Rachel Doughty told the Times: "It disturbs me that our government seems to be sanctioning one form of religion." Jewish protester Wayne Willis declared: "What I hear here, minus the violence, is the same thing I hear from Skinheads."

Ahead: The Battle For RFA

If rally organizers have their way, Sunday's gathering will ignite support and activism on behalf of the Religious Freedom Amendment which, for the third time, has been introduced into Congress. The current version, authored by Rep. Ernest Istook, appears on the surface to be disarmingly simple. It speaks of the goal: "To secure the people's right to acknowledge God: The right to pray or acknowledge religious belief, heritage or tradition on public property, including public schools..." Christian Coalition Director Ralph Reed and other religious right luminaries joined Rep. Istook on March 24, at a Capitol Hill gathering to announced the amendment.

The amendment states that "The government shall not compel joining in prayer, initiate or compose school prayer, discriminate against or deny a benefit on account of religion." But critics point out that this is a ruse designed to move prayer and other religious ritual into the public schools and government venues under the guise of "student initiated" or "student led" praying. American Atheists National Media Coordinator Ron Barrier has denounced the Religious Freedom Amendment as "another try at an end-run around state-church separation." Barrier also noted that RFA "puts the government seal of approval on religious belief."

"Even religionists don't need the RFA to practice their conjuring rituals," said Mr. Barrier. "There are over 300,000 churches, temples, mosques and other tax-exempt locations where religious people of various faiths can go to worship or appease the deity of their choice. This proposed Amendment isn't about 'freedom to worship,' it's about legitimizing public religious display in government, and coercing others to either participate in prayer or watch others pray."

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Moore Speaks On White
Supremacist Identity Program
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

April 13, 1997

In the days and hours leading up to yesterday's rally, Judge Roy Moore did little to tone down his sectarian religious rhetoric, or even denounce the more extreme, bigoted groups hopping onto the "Save Our Commandments" coalition. Those groups included Southern partitionist movements as well as those with an explicit anti-gay, anti-abortion agenda such as Randall Terry's Life Ministry. Last week, Moore declared that American was founded on belief in a specific (i.e. Judeo-Christian) deity, and told reporters that the country is "not a nation founded upon the Hindu god or Buddha."

On Tuesday, though, Judge Moore was interviewed on a shortwave radio program called "Scripture for America" operated by Rev. Pete Peters out of Laporte, Colorado. Peters is one of the leading exponents of a theo-political movement known as Christian Identity, which preaches that blacks, Jews and others are descendants of the devil. The show's home page on the world wide web says that Peters and his movement are "dedicated to preaching of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ and revealing to the Anglo-Saxon, German and kindred (white) Americans their true biblical identity."

Peters is known for his participation with extreme groups such as Aryan Nations and the Idaho-based Church of Jesus Christ Christian, an organizational nexus for Ku Klux Klan and neo-nazi movements. He fuses his racist theology with a hatred for abortion and homosexuality, and advocates the death penalty for gays. Each summer, Peters has hosted a "family style" Bible retreat which attracts Christian rock groups, militia types and Identity believers.

During his stint on "Scriptures for America," Moore outlined his case and maintained that the Ten Commandments were the foundation of American government.

On Friday, a spokesperson for Moore said that the judge was unaware of the racist Identity views of Rev. Peters.

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