February 2002 AU Bulletin

Istook Introduces School Prayer Amendment In House

U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) has proposed a constitutional amendment to allow government-sponsored religion in public schools and other public buildings.

The measure, which Istook labels the "School Prayer Amendment," was introduced Dec. 20 in the House of Representatives as H.J. Res. 81. It has already garnered the support of 74 co-sponsors.

The proposed amendment's text reads: "To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Neither the United States nor any State shall establish any official religion, but the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. The United States and the States shall not compose school prayers, nor require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity."

This new effort is Istook's third try to gut the church-state separation provisions of the Constitution. In June 1998, House members voted 224-203 in favor of H.J. Res. 78, a majority but still far short of the two-thirds necessary for passing a constitutional amendment. Istook tried again a year later with H.J. Res. 66, but the amendment never received a floor vote.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State criticized the latest Istook scheme and urged lawmakers to reject it.

"Istook's amendment would destroy the delicate church-state balance we have struck in this country over the last two centuries," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, AU's executive director. "Because the American people have separated religion and government, we have created one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world. Our First Amendment works fine, it doesn't need fixing."

AU's Lynn noted that, if added to the Constitution, Istook's amendment would bring sweeping changes to the church-state landscape. Among the likely consequences would be coercive school-sanctioned prayer in public school classrooms, religious instruction by teachers and evangelistic assemblies by outside clergy. In addition, government endorsement of religious texts on public property would be allowed, and religious groups would find themselves forced to compete with one another for government recognition.

Supreme Court Skips Minnesota Evolution Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal from a Minnesota teacher who wants to criticize evolution in public school science classes.

In 1998, Rod LeVake, an evangelical Christian, was removed as a biology teacher in the Faribault School District after his colleagues in the science department expressed concern that LeVake had not covered evolution adequately in class. When asked about the matter, LeVake said he could not teach evolution because he does not believe it occurred.

LeVake later wrote a paper critical of evolution that ended with a promise to offer his students "an honest look at the differences and inconsistencies of the theory without turning my class into a religious one."

School officials told LeVake this was unacceptable and reassigned him to teach ninth-grade natural sciences, a class that does not deal with evolution. LeVake, with assistance from TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, sued the school district in state court, contending that this action violated his freedom of religion and free speech rights.

LeVake's lawsuit was a failure at every stage in the judicial process. A Minnesota trial judge dismissed his case, concluding that school officials had the right to direct teachers to use the school's curriculum. In May, a three-judge panel with the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled unanimously against LeVake, and the state Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.

On Jan. 7, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it too would skip hearing LeVake v. Independent School District 656.

Wiccan Prison Chaplain Sparks Controversy In Wisconsin

A Wiccan chaplain at the Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin is generating complaints from state lawmakers, some of whom are recommending the state discriminate on religious grounds when hiring staff in the future.

The Rev. Jamyi Witch, who has served as a volunteer minister in the state prison system since 1999, began working as a full-time chaplain at the maximum security facility in December. According to a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Witch is believed to be the state's first Wiccan chaplain and one of only a handful nationwide.

Gary McCaughtry, Waupun's warden, told the Journal Sentinel he hired the most qualified person for the job.

However, Rep. Scott Walker (R-Wauwatosa), chairman of the legislature's Assembly Corrections and Courts Committee, condemned McCaughtry's decision.

"Witch's hiring raises both personal and political concerns," Walker said. "Not only does she practice a different religion than most of the inmates she practices a religion that actually offends people of many other faiths, including Christians, Muslims and Jews."

Rep. Mike Huebsch (R-West Salem) said he will sponsor a measure to eliminate state funding for Witch's position. Ironically, Huebsch has argued repeatedly in recent years for increasing the number of chaplains serving in state prisons.

"Taxpayers shouldn't be forced to accept this hocus-pocus," Huebsch told reporters.

As for Witch, she's anxious to get to work counseling inmates.

"I think it's very important for people to understand that when I walk though the prison walls, I am Chaplain Jamyi Witch, interfaith and non-denominational chaplain," she said. "I minister to everyone's needs. I have no interest in converting anyone. That would be wrong."

Harry Potter Books Stir Debate In Public Schools

Several school districts across the country are under increasing pressure to ban or restrict access to Harry Potter books, because they allegedly promote the occult.

In York, Pa., for example, a group of parents has asked school district officials to ban the popular children's series from public schools.

"It's against my daughter's constitution, it's evil, it's witchcraft," said Deb DiEugenio, a parent of a sixth-grader in the Eastern York School District. "I'm not paying taxes to teach my child witchcraft."

In fact, the Potter books, which tell the story of a young boy training to become a wizard, are regarded as wholesome children's literature by most observers.

Perhaps the most dramatic opposition to the books came in Alamogordo, N.M., where a church organized a Dec. 30 event to burn the literature in a bonfire.

"These books encourage our youth to learn more about witches, warlocks and sorcerers, and those things are an abomination to God and to me," Pastor Jack Brock of the Christ Community Church told the Reuters news service. "Harry Potter books are going to destroy the lives of many young people."

While church members sang "Amazing Grace" during the book burning, protestors in a line stretched a quarter of a mile long chanted, "Stop burning books."

Black Legislators Oppose School Voucher Schemes

Although voucher advocates claim broad support for their cause in the African-American community, a new report suggests influential black lawmakers oppose public funding of religious and other private schools.

The 600 members of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators have issued a call to lawmakers nationwide to increase funding for urban schools to lower class sizes, support high academic standards and reduce the achievement gap that divides black and white public school students.

The legislators specifically targeted vouchers and charter schools as policies to avoid, concluding that these efforts divert scarce resources from public schools that serve everyone and fail to increase academic performance.

"Vouchers threaten to create a two-tiered educational system where students who need the most attention and support are trapped in resource-starved neighborhood schools," the report says.

The report, "Closing the Achievement Gap," was released Nov. 27 in Atlanta. (Visit www.nbcsl.com.)

New York School Board Considers Chaplaincy Program

A proposal to bring an Interfaith Chaplaincy Program to public schools in Rochester, N.Y., would run afoul of the First Amendment, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In January, the Rochester Board of Education was preparing to consider a plan to implement a chaplaincy program wherein religious leaders would receive tax dollars to serve as spiritual counselors for students in public schools. If approved, the community would have the first such program of any school district in the country.

Upon learning of the proposal, AU's Legal Department contacted Bolgen Vargas, president of the education board, to urge school officials to reject the scheme.

"Courts have approved public chaplaincy programs only in extremely limited contexts, such as in prisons and on military bases," said Ayesha Khan, legal director of Americans United. "The use of chaplains in these situations has been upheld because individuals would otherwise be unable to practice their religions because of the restrictions on their movement in these environments. This is not true of students, who are easily able to access clergy members and religious facilities in their communities."

Ontario Debates Education Tax Credit Proposal

Parents of children attending private schools in Ontario will now be able to take advantage of a generous new tax credit, though the measure has sparked controversy throughout the Canadian province.

When fully implemented in 2006, the credit will be worth up to $3,500 per child. The aid, however, applies only to students attending Ontario's "independent" schools, which include private secular schools and non-Catholic religious schools. Catholic schools, meanwhile, continue to enjoy full funding from the government an arrangement that has been ongoing since 1867.

In recent years, as Protestant, Jewish and Muslim minorities grew in number, many expressed resentment at paying for Catholic schools while their faith's educational institutions received no public support. Some observers say the tax credit plan was offered as a way to support multiple religions in a more equal fashion.

Political leaders in Canada's Liberal Party criticized the tax credit, arguing that it will undermine public schools and divide children along religious lines. Many in the party have said that if they gain sufficient seats in upcoming elections to win control of the government, they will repeal the measure.

In an ironic turn of events, Catholic leaders in the province have announced opposition to the tax credit, arguing that it may erode support for publicly funded schools, including Roman Catholic institutions. Catholic leaders also say the funding scheme is unfair. John Stunt, executive director of the Ontario Catholic School Trustee Association, told Education Week that Catholic schools must follow government standards relating to financial accountability and academic performance, which will not be imposed on private schools accepting the tax credit.