Peyote A "Sacrament", Not Drug Says Uncle Sam

Military Okays Peyote Use As "Sacrament"
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

April 18, 1997

The U.S. Department of Defense may have inadvertently charged into the middle of a state-church separation controversy earlier this week when it announced that American Indian soldiers will now be permitted to use peyote, a hallucinogenic substance as part of religious rituals. While taking a firm "zero tolerance" stance against the use of other drugs, the department announced that its new policy conformed from the 1994 American Indian Religious Freedom Act. DOD began rewriting its own internal guidelines on drug use and Native American religious ritual last year. The new guidelines will also exempt American Indians from having to answer "No" on their enlistment forms when asked if they have ever used drugs.

A Pentagon spokeswoman told reporters: "If they're using peyote in their religious practices, it's a sacrament, not a drug, just as sacramental wine is not considered a drug." Regulations will prohibit the use or possession of peyote on military installations without permission from the local commander.

The new policy covers over 9,000 American Indians currently enlisted in military services. Nearly 250,000 members of the Native American Church also ingest the peyote cactus legally and are exempt from drug laws which cover the rest of the population.

Peyote has been used for thousands of years by tribal groups throughout North and South America. In the U.S., it is a small spineless cactus native to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. The plant is cut off at ground level and then allowed to dry.

Although the drug is psychoactive and causes hallucinations when ingested, it is not considered addictive. The hallucinatory visions are amalgamated into some Native American belief rituals. In the late 1890's, mescaline was isolated from the peyote bud, and remains the only naturally occurring psychedelic in this particular family of adrenaline-related drugs. Cultural changes in the 1960s and 70s popularized and interest in peyote and mescaline. Philosopher Alduous Huxley' (1894-1963) wrote extensively of his "trips" with the substance.

Discouraged By The Church

According to Dr. Andrew Weil, author of books such as "Chocolate to Morphine: Understanding Mind-Active Drugs," the Roman Catholic Church -- following closely in the footsteps of the advancing Spanish Conquistadores -- branded the use of peyote as sinful and attempted to suppress its use. But Weil suggests while the use of the drug spread, plains Indians organized a "new religion" based on peyote. "Not surprisingly," says Weil, "the explosion of this psychedelic movement among Indians generated intense opposition by non-Indians. Churches and government agencies charged that peyote made Indians crazy and violent; stories circulated of Indian men who, upon eating the cactus, axed helpless victims to death, while Indian women under its influence supposedly ripped off their clothes in sexual frenzies..."

A Bad Solution?

But state church separationists say that the government's response to Indians demands about the use of peyote in religious rituals may solve a problem by actually creating new ones. Attempts to guarantee First Amendment rights for Native Americans under the Free Exercise clause -- freedom of religion -- took the form of two pieces of legislation, one of which is now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1994) specifically addressed problems with Native American practices. Another law, the more widely structured Religious Freedom Restoration Act, attempted to clarify what actions if any government could take that had the effect of limiting religious practice.

Both laws were in response to an obscure court case known as OREGON EMPLOYMENT DIVISION v. SMITH, which dealt with attempts by the state to enforce drug laws that happened to infringe on religious beliefs and rituals. The wider question before the courts, though, was the traditional approach to the exercise of religious freedom. Prior to SMITH, if a government entity enacted legislation that "substantially" limited a religious practice or activity, it had to demonstrate a compelling reason for doing so.

Ironically, it was Justice Antonin Scalia who wrote the majority opinion in SMITH and said that the government no longer needed to balance its own interests with any religious-freedom claims. In a decision which shocked and angered many, Scalia wrote that the Constitution did not guarantee "equal protection" for minority religious groups and practices, but only prevented harmful discrimination. He admitted that the new standard drawn by the high court might place smaller religious groups at a "disadvantage," but claimed this to be an "unavoidable consequence of democratic government."

An Unfortunate Response

SMITH is considered a narrow decision which nevertheless had broad consequences. It was argued without briefs, and even the Attorney General of Oregon admitted that the scope of the decision went too far. The state had merely expected the court to forbid the use of peyote; no one anticipated a major realignment of state-church separation criteria.

Within days of the SMITH ruling, religious groups had formed a coalition which eventually attracted support from Muslims, Jews, Fundamentalists, Scientologists, Humanists and others. A bill meant to correct the ruling in SMITH was drafted, and in 1993 Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. RFRA later supplemented the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which had the effect of exempting Native American religious believers from enforcement of certain anti-drug provisions.

RFRA is now under constitutional review thanks to a case unrelated to peyote and the Native American Church. In that case, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Antonio is challenging the right of the small Texas town of Boerne to prevent demolition of a 70-year-old church building which has been declared a historical site. The Church insists that it is exempt from zoning laws and other regulations which apply to the rest of the community -- business owners and private individuals -- since it is a religious group, and thus is protected under the RFRA and the First Amendment.

"Special Rights" For Believers?

A shocking number of civil liberties and other groups formerly considered as state-church separation advocates have allied with religious organizations in defending the RFRA and the RFA. There are critics, however, who charge that both pieces of legislation are "bad law" which create a class of "special rights" for religious believers that don't apply to the rest of the culture. Ron Barrier, National Media Coordinator for American Atheists, earlier charged that the RFRA "clearly discriminates against those who profess no religious beliefs," and exempt certain behaviors and activities simply on the basis of church affiliation or religious practice. Other civil libertarians maintain that in the specific example of the military exemption for Native Americans using peyote for religious purposes, the wider questions about drug use and drug de-criminalization are ignored.

In both government and the media, the debate over reconciling religious practice, law and freedom from intrusive religion appears to be confined to narrow cases rather than general principles. The executive director of the Armed Forces Chaplain's Board said that his office was informing all chaplains in service branches to permit the use of peyote in religious venues. He told Associated Press: "When people are allowed to practice their faith and nourish the spiritual dimension of their lives, that promotes and enhances military readiness." A representative of the Native American Church also insisted that "you have to pray" in order to use peyote, and added: "This is not be mixed up with marijuana, cocaine, all those drugs."

But things may not remain that way. While government officials and Pentagon representatives have been quick to downplay any adverse effects of ingesting peyote, another Native American Church representative told media: "This opens some doors for our church, and it marks the first sanctioned use of a hallucinogen by members of the armed forces." It could create new problems. What if a "new religion" insists that some other drug is a "sacrament"? (A "Coptic" church in Florida has challenged certain drug prohibitions against marijuana on that basis).

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Georgia: "Silent Praying" Upheld

Court Upholds Georgia
"Moment Of Silence"
Case To Reach U.S. Supreme Court?
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

May 8, 1997

A federal appeals court in Atlanta has ruled that public schools in Georgia may continue to open the official school day with a "moment of silence," a practice which critics charge is a thinly-veiled form of religious ritual. The 1994 law was challenged by a former suburban Atlanta teacher, Brian Bown who taught social studies at South Gwinnett High School. Bown was dismissed from his position when he decided to protest the period of so-called "silent reflection" by lecturing. He told reporters: "I either violate my conscience and beliefs and follow a law that is blatantly unconstitutional, or I'm fired." He also warned that the provision was a first step toward some form of state-sponsored prayer in public school classrooms.

Yesterday, Bown's attorney, Steven Leibel, said that the appeals court ruling will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Chances are high that the justices will agree to take the case: a number of states already have "moment of silence" laws, and the appeals ruling seems to conflict with earlier decisions like WALLACE v. JAFFREE, a 1985 decision which overturned similar rules concerning a "period of silence ... for meditation or daily prayer."

Mr. Leibel had argued that the Georgia law entangled the interests of government with religious ritual. The Georgia law, however, does not specifically mention prayer. The three justices of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the provision satisfied the "three pronged" test outlined in the 1971 LEMON v. KURTZMAN case, which has served as a benchmark in deciding a considerable body of state-church separation disputes. LEMON states that any practice of government passes First Amendment muster if it as a primarily secular purpose, does not have the effect of advancing or inhibiting religious belief, and does not foster "excessive government entanglement" with religion.

Another 'End Run' Around The First Amendment?

In a number of key decisions going back to 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected most appeals for some kind of organized prayer in public school classrooms. In ENGLE v. VITALE, the justices rejected the so-called "Regent's prayer" which had been composed by state authorities in New York, and was designed as a non-denominational appeal to an unspecified deity. While the prayer was judged to be "denominationally neutral", the New York Court of Appeals found that it did not conform to all of the possible religious faiths, but nevertheless sanctioned the practice since any students who happened to object could be excused from the exercises.

Two other cases concerned prayer and Bible recitation. ABINGTON TOWNSHIP SCHOOL DISTRICT v. SCHEMPP involved a challenge to a Pennsylvania statute which required daily reading of ten verses from the Bible in public school classrooms. MURRAY v. CURLETT involved similar practices in the Baltimore schools; one aspect of MURRAY involved the coercive nature of any prayer even if students were given the "option" of remaining silent or leaving the classroom. In both cases, the high court ruled that prayer and Bible recitation were unconstitutional endorsements of religious ritual.

Other decisions followed including the 1985 WALLACE v. JAFFREE case, and LEE v. WEISMAN which ruled that prayer at graduation ceremonies was an establishment of religion. But prayer advocates were busy within school boards and state legislatures trying to find a way to circumvent these rulings. The "moment of silence" -- along with other disingenuous ploys such as "student initiated prayer" -- was one such strategy.

Some form of this law has been adopted in Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia and South Carolina. Attempts have also been made in Pennsylvania, Florida and Oklahoma. While supporters of these "reflective silence" proposals insist that the ritual has nothing to do with religion, however, records of debate over the issue suggest otherwise. Attorney Barbara Simon noted in an issue of "Freedom Writer" that in South Carolina, for instance, the moment of silence ploy was being promoted by Rep. Becky Meacham. "In an interview in the Columbia State," notes Simon, "she admitted that her real goal was school prayer legislation, but a moment of silence was the best she could do -- for now." Simon labels attempts to institute these periods of silence or meditation, "back door attempts to promote state-sponsored prayer in our public schools."

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Religious Freedom Amendment In Capitol Hill Hopper

New, Improved Amendment
Rules Out Freedom From Religion
The RFA Has Been Expanded
And Introduced By Rep. Istook --
And Praised By Christian Coalition Head Ralph Reed
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

May 8, 1997

The latest version of the Religious Freedom Amendment has been formally introduced in the House of Representatives, and includes additional phraseology over earlier renditions which immediately drew gushing praise from Ralph Reed and other religious leaders. The amendment, proposed by Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK) has been expanded to 71 words, and states:

"To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: The people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. The government shall not require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, initiate or designate school prayers, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion."

Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed dispatched a morning press release, promising that his 1.6 million member organization would campaign vigorously for the amendment. He said: "We look forward to working with the bipartisan co-sponsors of the Religious Freedom Amendment. Our organization is committed to seeing a vote on this before the August recess if possible, and we will spend whatever resources are necessary to mobilize our grassroots network to see that the First Amendment's freedom FOR religion will no longer be translated as freedom FROM religion."

This morning's bill is only the latest in a number of proposed amendments designed to legalize some form of prayer in public schools and other government venues. The measure, in some version, has been introduced twice before since 1994, when it emerged as a centerpiece in the Christian Coalition's "Contract With the American Family." Despite efforts by religious right groups, however, including the Coalition, Christian Legal Society and Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, different versions emerged, and the respective sides balked at endorsing each other's proposals. This latest Istook version is more inclusive of the demands of some religious groups that the Amendment be "beefed up" to provide for religious ritual and display on government property.

Reed noted that over 110 congressional representatives have already expressed support for the measure as co-sponsors, including Sanford Bishop (D-GA) and Floyd Flake (D-NY), both of whom are members of the Congressional Black Caucus. This morning's press release mentioned that fact; statements sent out earlier from the Coalition's Chesapeake, Va. office promoted Saturday's "Congress on Racial Justice and Reconciliation" scheduled for Baltimore Maryland. That event is being promoted as an effort "seeking to bridge the chasm between white evangelicals, African Americans and other minorities." Topics on the meeting agenda "will include racial reconciliation; gangs, drugs, drugs and violence (sic); the Religious Freedom Amendment, the Coalition's Samaritan Project and many other..."

Reed went on to describe the Istook amendment as "truly a bipartisan, universal issue which a majority of Americans can and do support." He added that "God is not a Republican or a Democrat nor is he white or black."

Proposal Aimed At Establishment Clause

The latest version of the Religious Freedom Amendment specifically endorses behaviors and policies which have long concerned state-church separation activists; and it plugs in to many "culture war" themes now being played out across the nation, including places like Alabama where a state judge insists that he will continue his practice of beginning court sessions with a Baptist invocation, and posting a plaque of the Ten Commandments above his bench. While the legislation pays lip service to nonbelievers or others who may object to orchestrated prayer ("The government shall not require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity"), it would permit any other form of prayer ritual initiated by students, and possibly even by teachers, administrators or even outside interests.

Yet major courts have decided that major problems exist with prayer initiated or conducted by student leaders. In the "captive audience" setting of public schools, students who opt out of prayer can often find themselves isolated, ostracized and even physically threatened by their school mates. Critics of school prayer note that the practice often divides students and creates hostility; others add that prayer itself in not efficacious, and has no place in such a venue.

Other parts of Mr. Istook's Religious Freedom Amendment clearly place the government in the position of endorsing either a particular religion, or religious belief in general. The "right to pray" addressed in the proposal is already guaranteed in the Free Exercise portion of the First Amendment; but RFA creates a new class of rights which would legalize prayer or recognition of "religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property..." In addition to public schools, this portion of the amendment would permit any religious display (directly or indirectly using public monies) in courtrooms, government lands, other buildings and in the official ceremonies of government business.

The final portion of the amendment is also cause for concern. It states that government may not "deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion." That phrase have been defended as a form of anti-discrimination clause against persons who profess a religious belief (including a "minority" belief), but it actually goes much further. This disingenuous "equal access to a benefit" would end any restrictions currently applied to religious organizations which receive government aid or monies of any kind. Churches and other religious groups would thus be permitted to establish non-profit, sectarian social outreaches and receive government funding despite the fact that they may use these public resources as part of their greater religious mission. Critics of RFA charge that this final part of the Istook proposal would permit a clear, blatant subsidy by taxpayers and the government of religious proselytization -- something currently prohibited by the First Amendment.

RFA -- "Reports Of Its Death Highly Exaggerated"?

When the 105th Congress convened in January, it appeared unlikely that the different sides involved in crafting some version of the Religious Freedom Amendment (earlier referred to as the Religious Equality Amendment) could agree on a workable proposal. It also seemed likely that the Christian Coalition-religious right social agenda would once again be put on the Capitol Hill "back burner," as Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the hill thrashed out more pressing matters such as budget reform.

That still may be the case; but while the Religious Freedom Amendment is probably currently short of the required votes needed for passage, the situation could change. Among the factors which might affect the outcome of the Istook amendment in the next 60-90 days:

* Gridlock on substantive issues. "It's the economy, stupid" is still the operative phrase in Washington, but a break-down in the budgetary process involving Congress and the White House could fuel a political environment where culture war issues again become a substitute for more harder, substantive questions. It should be noted that a good portion of legislation now being debated in the House and Senate already resonates with religious overtones -- everything from the Partial Birth Abortion Ban to the American Community Renewal Act and even "get tough" schemes for dealing with recalcitrant juveniles.

* U.S. Supreme Court rulings. Among the cases now being debated by the court are two important "religious liberty" appeals involving whether government can provide financial aid to private, religious schools, and whether religious groups are exempt under the Free Exercise clause from certain laws and regulations which apply to the rest of society. BOERNE v. FLORES and a rehearing on AGUILAR v. FELTON could go either way, and end up being a no-win situation for state-church separation regardless of how the justices rule. Here's why. In the former case, the high court must decide whether a city can regulate the regional Archdiocese which wants to demolish part of a historic church structure in order to construct a new edifice. Should the justices find for the church, that action would essentially exempt religious groups from laws and regulations which apply to private individuals and businesses by burdening the state with the responsibility of showing a "compelling interest" in its actions. Critics charge that this would essentially create a class of "special rights" for religious believers and groups. In AGUILAR v. FELTON, government aid to religious groups is under consideration. New York City wants to allow remedial and special education teachers to go directly into private sectarian schools; critics charge that this opens the door to wider funding of these religious institutions.

Should the high court rule against the religious groups in either or both cases, that would fuel the call for passage of the Religious Freedom Amendment says American Atheists President Ellen Johnson. "The Christian Coalition will point to unfavorable decisions in these cases and essentially say 'Here's why we need the RFA. Churches aren't protected enough by the current law, so we need to amend the constitution.' "

But decisions which favor religious groups in BOERNE or AGUILAR could also enhance the appeal of the RFA. The Amendment could be packaged by supporters as being in accord with the intent and direction of the Supreme Court.

* Black religious groups and the Congressional Black Caucus. Overlooked by most media is the fact that while a gulf has existed between the religious right and the nation's black religious establishment, the latter is often highly conservative on the "culture war" issues emphasized by groups like the Christian Coalition. While they may disagree on questions such as welfare reform, many black religious leaders have "answered the call" on issues like opposition to gay rights, gambling, pornography and abortion. Thanks to Reed, the CC in particular has enjoyed some success in positioning itself as a bridge builder between conservative white fundamentalists and evangelicals, and a large black religious constituency. AANEWS has advised readers to particularly note the role played by CC superstar Congressman J.C. Watt (R-OK). And the Coalition isn't the only religious right group courting blacks. The Promise Keepers movement is making a major, high profile effort to target black men; the group just concluded another rally held in Los Angeles which featured Bishop Phillip H. Porter, a black PK minister known for his extreme Christian Reconstructionist tendencies.

It remains doubtful, of course, that as a body the Congressional Black Caucus will sign on to the Religious Freedom Amendment; but expect some highly publicized and showcased defections over the prayer issue.

And More Of The Same

Even if they don't have the numbers for passage, the Coalition and its supporters are determined to get the Religious Freedom Amendment in front of the congress for a vote. The results will inevitably find their way into voters guides and other handouts, along with representative's stand on related issues such as abortion and government aid to religious groups -- all in time for the next round of elections. Building opposition to the Religious Freedom Amendment should still remain a priority for Atheists and state-church separationists who seek to preserve what Mr. Reed has made his number-one target -- our freedom FROM religion.

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Liar, Liar -- Ralph Reed and the Religious Freedom Amendment

Coalition Road Show For
Religious Freedom Amendment --
Hype, Hysteria And Distortion
Claims of "Victims" Used To Promote
School Prayer, Other CC Agendas
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

May 27, 1997

The Christian Coalition has begun a concerted effort to promote its Religious Freedom Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, formally introduced earlier this month into the House by Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.). Last week, the group staged a series of press conferences and Religious Freedom Celebration events, and presented "victims" to the news media of what was claimed to be official intolerance of religious belief in schools and other public venues. Among the victims was a school girl from Tennessee who reported received a failing grade on a research paper about Jesus Christ, a Michigan student who ostensibly had a videotape of a song sung at a local church banned from the classroom, and the operator of a "faith-based" drug rehabilitation center.

A press release to the news media claimed that all were "victims of religious discrimination," adding that several would be joining Coalition director Ralph Reed on a barnstorming trip across the nation to promote the RFA.

Along with a campaign to override President Clinton's anticipated veto of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban, passage of the Amendment has now become the major legislative objective of the Coalition. The RFA is the latest effort to circumvent a number of U.S. Supreme Court decisions which have banned orchestrated prayer from public schools, and set limits on the involvement of government in promoting or assisting religious organizations, including "faith-based" charities and other outreaches. Supporters of RFA insist that those decisions represent "judicial activism," and foster a climate of official hostility toward religion. But critics point out that the Amendment is unnecessary, and that court decisions merely reflect the intention of the First Amendment in promoting state-church separation.

Questionable Claims?

In promoting the Religious Freedom Amendment, Christian Coalition has advanced two themes that now echo throughout the religious right effort to enact this controversial legislation.

One is the claim that government has become actively "hostile" toward the expression of religious belief in the public square by not orchestrating or allowing prayer and other rituals in classrooms and other government institutions. Along with high court decisions which banned prayer (MURRAY v. CURLETT , ABINGTON TOWNSHIP v. SCHEMPP), more recent decisions about "student led" prayer or prayer at graduation ceremonies (LEE v. WEISMAN, 1992) have come under attack as well. Courts have noted that praying in such a setting involves a "captive audience" of students, and that those not wishing to pray in that venue often end up being coerced, isolated, even physically abused by prayer bullies. In addition, as noted in a recent 3rd. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling, disingenuous schemes such as having students hold a majority-rule vote on the practice still does not negate the unconstitutional nature of the prayer. "The student referendum does not erase the state's imprint from this graduation prayer." The court added that the circumstances and content of the prayer were not subjects of a class vote, but rather remains the private "business of the individual, not the state nor the public schools it maintains."

The second claim -- and one replete in the new Christian Coalition road show on behalf of the RFA -- is that this legislation is necessary to address the growing number of "victims" who supposedly are being denied their religious liberties. Mr. Reed has told CC members that the legislation "would mean an end to the daily stories in the newspapers about kids being punished for standing up for God. And while it is sad, but true that these events really happen ... they, and thousands of other stories just like them, underscore the fundamental need for the Religious Freedom Amendment."

The Coalition has been supporting a constitutional amendment to institute some form of school prayer and other religious expression in public venues as a centerpiece in its 1994 "Contract With the American Family." At that time, the legislation was referred to as the Religious Equality Amendment. The "Contract" made the claim that "With each passing year, people of faith grow increasingly distressed by the hostility of public institutions toward religious expression ... Examples of hostility toward religious values and those who hold them abound..." It added that "This hostility toward faith is the result of 30 years of confusing and often quixotic jurisprudence in establishment clause cases..."

Upon close scrutiny, however, those examples of "hostility" reflect a mixture of clear violations of the Establishment Clause (such as providing public funds for religion-based programs -- a practice frowned upon or considered suspect even by many religious groups), and half-truth. In unveiling the "Contract," the Coalition cited examples of where school authorities observed the law and avoided practices which appeared "to promote or give approval to religious matters..." Other cases involved prohibiting Christian nativity creches from federal post office lobbies, a clear violation of the First Amendment. Rather than reflecting "hostility" in the public square, those prohibitions instead present a posture of "official neutrality" by government toward the institutions of religion.

The organization's frantic effort to now promote the Religious Freedom Amendment, however, consists of rallies, press releases and public appearances showcasing the alleged "victims" of government hostility. As with previous claims made by the Coalition, we should be suspect of these stories.

A new study of the circumstances behind these "horror stories" was released late last week by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. It found that the Coalition, and its Director Ralph Reed were playing fast and loose with facts, making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about victimization in order to promote the agenda of rushing the Religious Freedom Amendment through Congress.

One alleged "victim" being presented by the CC is identified as Kelly DeNooyer of Michigan. The Coalition's May 16, 1997 Media Advisory notes next to her name: "videotape of song sung at church banned," followed by a statement referring to Ms. DeNooyer and others identified as "Victims of Religious discrimination who have been heroes in the fight for religious freedom." The AU study, however, shows that the DeNooyers sued their local elementary school in Livonia, Michigan after the teacher refused to permit Kelly -- then in the second grade -- to show her class a tape of her singing a religious hymn. She had been selected "VIP of the Week" as part of a school program to boost self-esteem; each student could then make a verbal presentation about themselves.

"The teacher rejected the tape for several reasons," notes the Americans United study. A verbal presentation was permitted as an exercise in giving students a familiarity with making speeches. The teacher also noted that the school had a policy requiring that all tapes shown in the classroom must be reviewed. "Lastly, she felt its religious content was inappropriate."

If the coalition is attempting to justify passage of a Religious Freedom Amendment on the grounds that current laws about state-church separation do not permit religious activities like that outlined in the DeNooyer case, they've got a point. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court ruled that classroom teaching assignments and activities were the proper role of certified teachers, not parents. In April, 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of that decision.

Another "victim" being spotlighted in Christian Coalition press releases is Brittany Settle Gossett of Tennessee. The May 16 advisory identifies her as a "school girl who received an 'F' on a research paper simply because her topic was Jesus Christ." But once again, the Coalition is presenting only a smidgen of facts. Americans United noted that the teacher "had assigned each student in her ninth-grade class to write a research paper on an unfamiliar topic based on four outside sources..." Ms. Settle reportedly first informed her instructor that she would write a piece about drama, but later changed her mind and made Christ the topic. The teacher rejected the subject matter, though, saying that it was too familiar to the student.

Like the DeNooyer case (DeNooyer v. Merinelli), this situation also ended up in the judicial system. The 6th Court of Appeals noted that Settle could not "do something other than (the teacher's) assignment and receive credit for it." And in November, 1995, the Supreme Court refused to hear Settle v. Dickson County School Board, thus letting stand the Appeals court ruling.

Another case cited by the Coalition media release is only incidentally related to religion; it is more appropriately a general free-speech case, since it involves wider issues and applications. Audrey Pearson of Woodbridge, Va. is identified as a "girl banned from reading her bible (sic) on a school bus." That indeed did happen, and Americans United notes: "The principal had not understood that students are permitted to bring religious material to school for their personal use and her decision was quickly reversed once contacted by the (Rutherford) Institute," a legal group. AU adds that "The matter never went to court, and the incident is now eight years old..."

But one must wonder how consistent the Coalition would be in defending the right of a student to read, politically unpopular tracts or publications while riding a school bus. Even more significant is that this practice, along with prayer or other voluntary religious activity is cited cited as an example of what students MAY do -- since it is on their own time, and not part of the "official" course business of the school day.

An Oversimplified -- And Frightening -- Case

The most blatant example of disingenuous Christian Coalition propaganda, though, thus far involves the case of Brad Hicks, a former police officer from North Carolina. He is identified on the May 16 Media Advisory sent out by the CC as a "police officer who was fired for using the word God." Despite the publicity for the May 22 "Religious Freedom Ride Celebration" kickoff at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. where Hicks was to appear, Americans United later noted that "apparently the facts (of the case) were so indefensible, even Reed couldn't put them forward."

Hicks was dismissed from his job as a police officer in Newton, N.C. after he violated orders from the police chief to stop distributing religious pamphlets on duty. A woman complained that after being pulled over for speeding, Hicks attempted to give her a tract; he was warned and placed on suspension, but refused to stop proselytizing on the job.

The Chief of Police who had warned officer Hicks later justified his action on dismissing the policeman. "You cannot stop someone on the road as a police officer and proceed to give them a church sermon.

The Hicks case -- and the face that Reed and the Coalition went as far as to include it as an example of "the fight for religious freedom" is especially disturbing in light of the activities of groups like "Cops for Christ" (a group which evangelizes inside of police departments throughout the country) and other violations by police. In Jacksonville, North Carolina, for instance, the Onslow County Sheriff's Office adopted the official slogan of "Serving God and Onslow County," and the reference to a law enforcement officer as a "messenger of Christ."

A Flood of Public Money For ""Faith-Based" Social Outreach

Still another example cited in the Coalition advisory is that of Teen Challenge of Maryland, a "faith based drug rehabilitation rehab center" that cannot qualify for government funding. The inclusion of this "faith based" social program is significant, and shows that the agenda of the Religious Freedom Amendment goes far beyond the narrow issue of prayer in schools, to wider questions about public funding for religious groups. The Establishment Clause and the "three pronged test" of LEMON v. KURTZMAN have not prevented religious groups from cashing-in on welfare reform, or establishing social service outreaches which, increasingly, rely on government funds. Indeed, over 60% of the funding for groups like National Catholic Charities are now provided by the public treasury through a variety of mechanisms like Community Development Block Grants and other programs. But in theory, at least, those activities which receive public monies must have a secular purpose, and not involve religious proselytization. (The "Lemon" test states that a government action must be: primarily secular in purpose; may not advance religion, or favor one religion over another; and must not result in "excessive entanglement" between church and state.)

Annihilating, or substantially gutting the criteria found in LEMON and other First Amendment guidelines is a major, and dangerous objective included in the phraseology of the proposed Religious Freedom Amendment. The amendment, as introduced recently by Rep. Istook reads:

"To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: The people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. The government shall not require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, initiate or designate school prayers, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion."

Like the Christian Coalition press releases about alleged "victims" of government repression, the Amendment is a masterpiece of oversimplication and evasion. Only one word -- "benefit" -- is used in a phrase which would essentially be used to undermine all Establishment Clause protections which currently exist preventing public funding of churches and "faith-based" outreaches, charities and other missions.

A Gratuitous Double Standard?

The RFA also strikes a new double standard in describing the relationship of government and organized religion. The current amendment gratuitously states that the government "shall not require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, initiate or designate school prayers..." But the Coalition's "Contract With the American Family" and other statements clearly blame a wide range of social ills on crucial Supreme Court rulings which abolished the very practice of compulsory or coercive prayer in schools. Many court findings underscored the fact that students in a public school classroom constitute a "captive audience."

Recent judicial decisions have also agreed with these standards. Last year, a U.S. District Judge ruled that school officials in Pontotoc County, Mississippi were acting improperly when they allowed prayers and Bible verse to be read over the school's public address system. While the case focused on the use of public funds in the use of religious proselytizing, Judge Neal Biggers also observed that Bible instruction classes were "part of a concerted effort" to indoctrinate students "into the belief and moral code of fundamentalist Christianity." The children of the woman bringing the original complaint -- Lisa Herdahl -- were ostracized by school mates and harassed. While students were permitted to opt out of the Bible instruction, those who did so were subject to opprobrium, and in one case a teacher denied the request saying that children who believed in a god would remain for the class, and those who did not would go to hell.

Reed Looking To '98 Elections

The Coalition has already earmarked $2,000,000 to be spent in 100 key legislative districts across the nation to defeat President Clinton's promise veto of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban, passed last week by the Senate. Reed's group will be launching a comparable effort to promote the Religious Freedom Amendment, and last Thursday the Coalition director told reporters that "Our goal is to secure the first vote in Congress on school prayer and religious freedom in 13 years, and to do so before the '98 elections." The threat against Senators and Congressmen who choose to not support the RFA is tangible; the voting record will be included in another round of "voter's guides" which the Coalition distributes prior to elections. During the 1996 contest, 45,000,000 copies of the guide flooded the nation through the Coalition's network of 125,000 participating churches and congregations. Critics charge that the "voter's guides" do not adequately reflect a candidate's stand on issues, or tell why they voted for or against a specific piece of legislation. There have also been accusations that the guides are distributed late in the campaign, so that those who are depicted as being "anti-family" or lacking on other issues do not have appropriate time to respond.

What's Ahead For RFA?

The latest version of the Religious Freedom Amendment represents the third effort the Coalition and its allies have made to bring such legislation to the floor of Congress for action. Its predecessor -- the so-called Religious Equality Amendment -- actually existed in two different versions with slightly different wording. Some groups maintain that the current RFA, as introduced by Rep. Istook, is not adequate; but the measure enjoys unprecedented support on Capitol Hill, and the approval of key members of the powerful House Judiciary Committee.

Ironically, the fate of the RFA could reside not only in the Congress, but in the hands of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Currently, the high court is deliberating the constitutionality of more direct government aid to religious schools in the case of AGUILAR v. FELTON, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The latter case may decide how far government may go in regulating religious organizations; the case, known as BOERNE v. FLORES involves efforts by a Roman Catholic diocese to be exempted from local zoning rules which apply to businesses and private individuals. Unfavorable court rulings in these cases could be used to build support for the Religious Freedom Amendment.

Unfortunately, the Amendment must be considered a masterstroke by Rep. Istook, Reed, and other religious-political interests who haggled over its precise wording. It is deceptively simple; rather than call for government funding of religious groups, for instance, it merely states that such groups shall not be denied a "benefit." It does not adequately address the coercive nature of prayer, whether initiated or led by students, in a public school setting. And while paying gratuitous lip service to not requiring persons "to join in prayer or other religious activity," it nevertheless permits direct and indirect public funding or facilitation of religious display which otherwise is confined to the voluntary venue of churches, temples and private homes.

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Charges Of Scandal At Religious School
Cast Doubts On Gov't Aid
To "Faith-Based" Institutions
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

June 11, 1997

With religious groups on both ends of the political spectrum agitating for some for of aid to "faith-based" schools and welfare programs, charges of scandal and criminal activity involving at least one New York based group may be a sign for caution.

Five members of a Jewish Hasidic group in Rockland County, N.Y. have been indicted on charges that they systematically defrauded the taxpayers of "tens of millions of dollars" under questionable loan schemes. In documents filed in New York, the U.S. Attorney charges that a religious seminary or "yeshiva" was funded almost exclusively by Pell grants which are designed to help students complete higher education. If prosecutors are right, one seminary got over $10,000,000 in grants on behalf of students who didn't exist. The fraudulent activities allegedly took place from 1987 to 1993.

Among specific charges in the indictment are that a program in "independent Judaic Studies" was created for students at Rockland County Community College. Documents maintain, though, that "Some New Square and Brooklyn residents were enrolled in as many as five different educational institutions, and received Pell Grants for as many as 10 or more years, without ever receiving any degree or any certificate reflecting that they had completed a program of study." The scams were allegedly made possible by falsified resumes, and doctored minutes of board meetings of the village of New Square, N.Y.

The Danger of "Religious Communities"

The indictments are part of an on-going confrontation which has developed between ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, and authorities and secular neighbors in so-called "religious communities" like the Kiryas Joel and Rockland County, N.Y. The formation of these religion-based enclaves as distinct governmental units, and their explosive growth in the last quarter-century, has fueled bitter fights over everything from zoning laws, traffic safety and the use of government funds. In some cases, Orthodox Jews -- imitating many Christian fundamentalist activists -- have taken over local school boards, even though their children do not attend the public schools.

In other communities, Orthodox neighborhood have organized to seceded from municipal or township entities. That move has resulted in unfortunate divisiveness based on religious affiliation, a fact that has concerned more secular Jews. One told the New York Times recently that the formation of such religious communities has resulted in animosity, and new "villages."

"There are two reasons these villages get formed ... One is to keep the Hasidim out and the other is to keep the Hasidim in."

The Danger Of RFRA, RFA

The scandal now breaking in New York involving yeshiva/seminary leaders raises serious questions about government funding of religious activities, at a time when many groups -- including Christian Coalition -- see "faith-based" social programs as a solution to some of the nation's problems. The problem of financial oversight and accountability could be made more difficult, however, if legislation such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. That 1994 law is being tested in the case of AGUILAR v. FELTON, and involves the constitutionality of government programs for remedial education in religion-based schools, specifically the parochial school system in New York City.

Another proposal on Capitol Hill, the Religious Freedom Amendment, would allow religious groups to obtain government funds for "faith-based" social programs, including education or drug-alcohol rehabilitation. Critics charge that RFA could also encourage financial irresponsibility by religious organizations which may prove more difficult to audit and oversee than their secular counterparts, and that such government aid clearly violates state-church separation.

The charges in the latest New York case involve residents of New Square, and even the son of the town's mayor. Indictments charge that in addition to improper use of Pell grant funds, other monies were fraudulently obtained through the Small Business Administration program and the Federal Section 8 housing budget.

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Waiting To Exhale -- Decisions Near on CDA, RFRA

Decisions On Decency &
Religious Freedom Restoration Acts
Expected This Week
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists

June 22, 1997

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to make public this week, perhaps as early as tomorrow, rulings on two major First Amendment cases which focus on important culture war issues in America.

Of primary interest to netizens is the notorious Communications Decency Act, the federal government's attempt to regulate "obscene" materials and other content in cyberspace. CDA has enjoyed backing from both ends of the political spectrum, and was supported by the Clinton administration and religious right groups such as Christian Coalition. Federal judicial panels in New York and Pennsylvania struck down the Act; both cited the unique character of the internet. District Judge Stewart Dalzell wrote, "The Internet may fairly be regarded as a never-ending worldwide conversation ... The Government may not, through the CDA, interrupt the conversation. As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from governmental intrusion."

Throughout the debate over the Communications Decency Act, supporters pinned their hopes on convincing the public and courts that government intervention was necessary to protect children from on-line predators and sexually explicit material. But opponents saw a wider free speech issue at stake, and pointed out that voluntary safeguards could be employed to filter out materials which parents and others may consider objectionable.

Within the online community, there is guarded optimism that the high court will strike down the CDA. This past week, there were reports that even the Clinton administration is now backing off its original enthused support for the law; the New York Times revealed that a White House working paper dealing with cyber issues like privacy, security and intellectual property, urges alternatives to legislation. The study also calls for the administration to work with industries developing blocking software to protect kids from pornographic materials. HOTWIRED reports that the new Clinton policy is to be unveiled on July 1, but the president's spindoctors still worry that the White House will be perceived as "soft on Net smut."

"A Supreme Court ruling that the CDA is unconstitutional could allow the administration to move forward with ... (a) market-friendly approach to electronic commerce and Net content." Talking heads at the Justice Department, which has supported the CDA with considerable vigor and surprised some observers when it announced that it was challenging the federal panel's decisions, insist that the policy paper is simply a "work in progress."

Georgia, New York Net-Censorship Laws Struck

Civil libertarians may have gotten a preview of what's ahead when two Federal courts ruled in separate decisions on Friday that state laws in Georgia and New York which attempted to restrict internet speech were unconstitutional.

One plaintiff in the Georgia case was the Atlanta Freethought Society. Earlier today, AFS President Kimberly Lyle-Wilson released a statement saying that her group's participation in the case "was due to the controversial nature of our online material (atheism) and the need for privacy and free speech protection of that material." Lyle-Wilson noted that other groups including those concerned with gay rights and battered women filed as well, often under the same grounds.

The Georgia law attempted to ban pseudonyms or partial names, and stop the use of links to trademarked products without written consent. Wilson noted that AFS contended that each of these provisions "violated the right to privacy, threatened free speech and (were) unenforceable ... vague, and would not address the problem it intended to." Federal Judge Marvin Shoob agreed, and observed that under the Georgia law, even the screen names used for America Online customers would be considered illegal.

Shoob also noted that the Georgia law "sweeps innocent, protected speech within its scope," and that it "affords prosecutors and police officers with substantial room for selective prosecution of persons who express minority viewpoints."

In New York, Judge Loretta Preska issued a 62-page ruling in the case of ALA v. PATAKI, but one based on slightly different grounds. Her decision noted that the state's attempt to restrict online content which might be considered "harmful to minors" violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on states attempting to regulate commerce outside their borders. She noted that "The Internet may well be the premier technological innovation of the present age ... Judges and legislators faced with adapting existing legal standards to the novel environment of cyberspace struggle with terms and concepts that the average American five-year old tosses about with breezy familiarity."

Judge Preska described the Internet as an area of commerce that should be designated as a "national preserve" to shield users from inconsistent, restrictive laws that "could paralyze development of the Internet altogether."

"Son Of CDA Expected"

The New York and Georgia cases are major victories for civil liberties and free expression; their effect could only add to a Supreme Court decision striking down the Communications Decency Act.

But expect the assault on civil liberties to continue from both ends of the political spectrum, including religious organizations that still have an agenda which could lead to a "son of CDA" proposal landing on Capitol Hill. The Christian Coalition is known to have a back-up plan should the high court rule against the Decency Act. Mike Russell, a spokesman for the group, told reporters last summer when the CDA was put on hold by one federal panel that "We're confident something will come about in the long run. The issue is that children need to be protected. There are laws in every state concerning the distribution of obscene books and magazines to children, this is no different."

Religious Freedom Restoration Act -- Threatening The Wall

The Supreme Court is also expected to rule on another crucial First Amendment case, this one pertaining to the "establishment clause." The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is being examined in the case of BOERNE v. FLORES, and involves attempts by the City of Boerne, Texas, to use historic zoning regulations to stop the Archdiocese of San Antonio from demolishing part of a 70-year-old church building in order to erect a new structure. The church isn't challenging zoning regulations per se, but instead maintains that such laws and codes have the effect of inhibiting religious exercise, and, therefore, should not apply to religious groups.

Enacted by congress in 1993, the act states that government must demonstrate a "compelling interest" in any action which regulates or affects a religious group. RFRA was passed in reaction to a 1990 high court ruling which examined the enforcement of drug laws against Native Americans who used peyote in religious ceremonies.

One aspect of the RFRA controversy concerns the limits of congressional power, and the ability which congress has to intrude into federal courts.

RFRA has enjoyed near-unanimous support from the American religious community. Last January, a coalition of churches, temples and sects mobilized to defend the law, and acting as the "Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion," filed an amicus or "friend of the court" brief in the BOERNE v. FLORES case. The Coalition brought together diverse religious denominations and groups, including the American Jewish Committee, American Muslim Council, Christian Legal Society, Episcopal Church, American Humanist Association, Baptist Joint Committee, Christian Science, National Council of Churches, Presbyterian Church, Peyote Way Church of God, and the National Council on Islamic Affairs.

The few vocal critics of RFRA, though, charged that the effect of the legislation was to create a class of "special rights" for believers. Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists, charged that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act fostered "a dual set of laws -- one for private individuals, groups and business, and another, less stringent, for any group of religious believers." Johnson also charged that RFRA "marginalized everyone who was not engaged in a religious enterprise," and discriminated in favor of faith-based groups.

What's Ahead?

Even pro-freedom rulings which overturn the CDA and RFRA probably will not stop attempts to regulate the internet, or establish "special rights" and dispensations for religious groups.

Speaking at a Capitol Hill press conference two weeks ago to present the new leadership of the Christian Coalition, televangelist Pat Robertson and other speakers emphasized the group's objective for "protecting families" and combatting "obscenity." Indeed, there are some who feel that the Communications Decency Act was not sufficiently tough.

A verdict either way on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act could be used to fuel the pressure on behalf of the Religious Freedom Amendment which is scheduled for action in Congress this summer. RFA is a constitutional amendment which would permit wider expression of religious belief and ritual in public institutions, including prayer in public schools; in addition, it would eradicate most state-church separation restrictions on religious groups seeking government funds in operating "faith-based" social outreaches.

"If the RFRA is over-turned, the Christian Coalition and its allies will point to that as an example of why the Religious Freedom Amendment is needed," warned Ellen Johnson. Others speculate that if RFRA is upheld, though, the religious right can use that decision and cite a more "religion friendly" attitude in the courts and Capitol Hill.

Waiting To Exhale

It may be premature, but some groups are already anticipating an thumbs-down for the Communications Decency Act. The American Civil Liberties Union which has led the legal charge against the CDA is asking people to "take the pledge" and urge the government to swear-off any further efforts to regulate the internet by signing an on-line form. Our advice: if CDA is struck down, join the celebration, but prepare for "son of CDA" and other attempts to political and religious interest groups to censor and ban whatever they happen to dislike.

State-church separationists should also closely watch the court's decision and reasoning in the RFRA (BOERNE v. FLORES) case. A ruling either way should be expected to ambush congress for a vote on the Religious Freedom Amendment.

The high-court is also looking at a related case, although it is not known when a decision will be announced. In examining AGUILAR v. FELTON, the court will wrestle with the delicate question of how far New York can go in using tax monies to provide remedial educational instruction to students in private religious schools. Currently, New York City spends nearly $12 million a year in portable classrooms and other schemes which allow parochial students to leave their school buildings and walk into nearby trailers where they receive instruction from city-paid teachers. Now, New York and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani want to have the teachers walk into the parochial schools. Critics have already objected to the "trailer scheme," saying that government monies are being used to supplement the agenda of private, religious educational institutions. The Supreme Court could, in this case, remove another barrier preventing government aid to religious schools.

(AANEWS and the American Atheists website will carry postings
on the expected high court rulings when they are made public

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