States Ponder Religious Liberty Bills
by Tom Flynn
State "religious liberty" bills that unduly privilege religion are being
considered in ten state legislatures. But similar measures have died in four others. An
emerging pattern suggests these initially popular bills may face a bleak future.
The state measures go by various names, but they're called "mini-RFRAs"
because they duplicate provisions of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
RFRA, passed in 1993, obliged government to show that it had a "compelling
interest" and had used the "least restrictive means" whenever laws or
regulations incidentally burdened religious free exercise. Advocates, including some
religious liberty and civil liberties organizations, believed RFRA protected religious
minorities. Critics, including the
As this is written, mini-RFRAs are pending in California, Connecticut, Hawaii (state
senate only), Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, South Carolina, and Texas. In
Florida, legislators ponder a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have a
In four state legislatures, however, mini-RFRAs have failed or been withdrawn.
Arizona's bill died in a state senate committee. Hawaii's state house denied a hearing to
a mini-RFRA, though a similar measure remains before its lower house. Last year, concerns
that mini-RFRAs would spark frivolous suits by prisoners loomed as a serious obstacle.
This year, some mini-RFRAs were amended to exempt prisoners from their protection. But
that turned out to alienate other key supporters; in Maryland and Virginia powerful
Catholic groups and the American Civil Liberties Union
stunned sponsors by announcing that they now opposed the amended bills.
Is this a strategy for beating mini-RFRAs in the future? When proposed, such bills tend
to attract support from across the political spectrum. As debate continues, supporters'
incompatible visions come into conflict. Exploiting that weakness may be the best way for
RFRA critics to keep these troublesome laws off the books in many states.
Defining College "Marketplace of Ideas"
by Amanda Chesworth
Over the past decade, the nation's public universities have seen lawsuit after First
Amendment lawsuit over mandatory student fees, which are distributed to student activities
groups on a nondiscriminatory basis. Many of these cases have been subsidized by
conservative legal groups, such as the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, which has
distributed "Defunding the Left" action packs to students nationwide.
The Supreme Court recently agreed to hear Board of Regents v. Southworth, a case
pitting the University of Wisconsin - Madison against a
group of conservative Christian students. The students allege that the university's
mandatory fees violate their freedom of conscience by forcing them to fund student groups
whose political activities they find objectionable. Groups cited include the Campus
Women's Center, the UW Greens, and several organizations supporting gay rights.
The student won their suit both in the Federal District Court in Madison and in the
United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Chicago. But according to Campus Freethought Alliance President
Derek Araujo, a Harvard senior, higher education will suffer if the Supreme Court fails to
reverse the 7th Circuit decision.
"If the Court rules in favor of these conservative Christian students," said
Araujo, "a student activities funding system that had ensured widespread debate and
diversity on college campuses will be overthrown."
To Pledge or Not to Pledge
by Amanda Chesworth
The status of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is now a hot topic of debate
among elementary school students, teachers, and political officials. House Bill 2384,
which passed the House in February and the Senate in March, will require that schools
provide time for students to recite the pledge at least once per week in school. Opinions
are mixed as to whether such a bill is necessary or, more important, compatible with the
Constitution of the United States of America.
A student in Oregon who inspired the legislation believes all students should celebrate
their heritage by reciting the pledge and calls herself "a proud American." A
student in California, in contrast, has successfully fought for her right as a religious
unbeliever to refuse to recite the pledge. A teacher makes the distinction between
mindless recitation and an understanding of meaning. Another student warns that regardless
of the option to sit out during the recitation, students will feel pressured to conform
and the diversity in any give public school will go unrecognized.
In 1891, on the four-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of
America, the American flag was introduced to the public school. The following year, the
Pledge of Allegiance was created for the yearly celebration: "I pledge allegiance to
the flag and to the Republic for which it stands - one nation indivisible - with liberty
and justice for all."
The right-hand salute that accompanied the recitation of the pledge was discontinued
during World War II. The phrase, "Under God" was added by Congress and President
Dwight Eisenhower in 1954.
The ALA wants to protect children from these types of sites, but filtering software has
not been successful. There are many examples of sites that are blocked with the filtering
software that children should be able to see, including toy sites, and some that should be
blocked but get through anyway. Consequently, the ALA wants parents themselves to monitor
their children's access. It is surprising that Schlessinger, an advocate for having
parents actually parent their own children, is trying to force someone else to watch them.
It is also interesting to note that, because of the some of the materials posted on
Schlessinger's site as examples from the "Go Ask Alice" site, filtering software
should block her site too.
Anti-Abortion Protests Sputter in Buffalo
by Tom Flynn
Abortion opponents from around the nation gathered in Buffalo, New York, during April.
But the promised reprise of 1992's "Spring of Life" turned out smaller than
"Operation Save America" (OSA) was organized by the Reverend Flip Benham of Operation Rescue - National and the Reverend Robert L. Behn
of Buffalo's Last Call Ministries. Announced just after the October assassination of
Buffalo-area abortion provider Dr. Barnett Slepian, OSA was controversial even among
abortion opponents. The Reverend Rob Schenk and other Spring of Life leaders announced
they would not participate.
OSA's agenda was broader than abortion alone, including protests of bookstores said to
sell pornography, gay and lesbian sites, public schools, and even Free Inquiry Editor-in-Chief Paul Kurtz. Officials treated the event very
cautiously out of concern that pro-life extremists might attempt further violence. (At the
time, no suspect had been named in the slaying of Dr. Slepian.) Federal judge Richard
Arcara ordered a 60-foot buffer zone around area clinics, which essentially forced
protests across the street from clinic doors. Federal authorities took extraordinary
precautions, including x-raying all of Free Inquiry's incoming mail over a
two-week period. Finally, pro-choice activists trained hundreds of clinic defenders.
Actual demonstrations between April 18 and 25 proved far smaller than predicted. Fewer
than 200 anti-abortion protestors participated, standing outside abortion clinics, public
schools, and a Barnes & Noble bookstore
displaying grisly retouched images of dismembered fetuses. Often they were outnumbered by
law-enforcement personnel. Planned protests against Paul Kurtz and at gay/lesbian sites
never materialized. Often, pro-choice counter-protestors found themselves with little to
Pro-choice and pro-life leaders agree that the era of mass blockades of abortion
clinics may have passed. And Operation Rescue - National has claimed success in Buffalo,
so much so that it announced it will change its name to Operation Save America.