Istook Amendment '99

Old And Not Improved

Any film aficionado will tell you that a sequel is rarely as good as the original.

In the case of Rep. Ernest Istook's misnamed "Religious Freedom Amendment," the sequel and the original are equally bad--because they are one in the same.

In case anyone has forgotten, Istook's amendment is a three-pronged attack on the separation of church and state. It would foster official programs of religious worship in public schools, require government to give taxpayer aid to sectarian schools and other religious institutions and encourage government to display religious symbols on just about every piece of public property available.

This monstrosity actually got a vote in the House of Representatives on June 4, 1998. Depressing as it may seem, it won a simple majority--224 in favor to 203 against. But the good news is it fell far short of the two-thirds majority required to pass a constitutional amendment. For that we can thank the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, who had the foresight to make the Constitution difficult to tinker with.

Istook's amendment is so wrong for America that it's difficult to know where to begin criticizing it. The bottom line is that our current First Amendment is all about freedom--the freedom to choose which religious groups, if any, you will support. The freedom of parents to decide what religions or philosophies they want their children to be exposed to. The freedom of all Americans to visit any government facility or office without feeling like a second-class citizen on account of religious belief or lack thereof.

The Istook Amendment, by contrast, is all about coercion. It would require young children to either pray in school or get up and leave the room. It would force all Americans to pay taxes to support religious groups they may not agree with or even particularly like. It would allow government at all levels to slap up sectarian symbols, as if this country were nothing better than a two-bit theocracy.

The amendment's number is H.J.Res. 66. Waste no time. Write, call, e-mail or fax your representative in the House of Representatives and ask him or her to oppose this measure. Say it's wrong for America. Explain to your representative that our First Amendment is too precious to be treated like a first draft by the Religious Right.

If you see a bad movie sequel, you may be out six or seven dollars and a few hours of time. But if we add Istook's bad sequel to our Constitution, we will lose considerably more--our religious freedom.

In short, we give the "Religious Freedom Amendment" a big thumbs down.