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Free Inquiry

Volume 19, Number 3
Summer, 1999

The following articles are from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 19, Number 3.

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 Council for Secular Humanism, observed that RFRA improperly favored religious over secular activities. In 1997 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down RFRA as unconstitutional and overbroad. Ever since, supporters have tried to enact similar legislation in the states.

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 similar effect.

In four state legislatures, however, mini-RFRAs have failed or been withdrawn.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.

Schlessinger Attacks ALA

by Timothy Binga

Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the radio personality, has attacked the American Library Association because of the ALA's stance on Internet filtering. She began her crusade by attacking a health information Web site maintained by Columbia University called "Go Ask Alice," which the ALA recommended on their Teen Hoopla Web page. According to Schlessinger, the ALA wants children to be able to access pornography. Internet filtering advocates joined her, and her Web site has become an Internet filtering lobby site.

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 anticipated.

"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 do.

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.

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