Free Inquiry Frontlines
Volume 19, Number 4
The following articles are from Free Inquiry
magazine, Volume 19, Number 4.
Congress Bludgeons First
by Christopher Kirchhoff
In the months following the tragic school shootings at Columbine
High School in Littleton, Colorado, the U.S. Congress has gone on a rampage of its own,
accordingto many First Amendment defenders. The resulting political maneuvers, civil
libertarians say, have knocked so many holes in the Bill of Rights that it is beginning to
resemble Swiss cheese.
The salvos began in a spectacular 24-hour period in mid-June. During that time, the
House of Representatives attached amendments to a juvenile justice bill denying attorneys
the right to recoup fees in suits that successfully challenge the constitutionality of
religious materials in public schools, or suits in which schools violate religious
neutrality. Such legislation would make it much more difficult for civil rights lawyers to
file and carry out their bread-and-butter lawsuits.
In the following three-day period, the House saw 44 amendments and bills on cultural
and religious issues, including Rep. Henry Hyde's (R-Ill.) legislation making it a crime
to expose minors to movies, books, or video games containing explicit sex or violence.
In legislation like the "Ten Commandments Defense Act" and "Freedom of
Student Religious Expression," lawmakers proposed provisions that discarded
traditional boundaries between church and state, leading some Representatives to wonder
aloud if the U.S. Supreme Court had suddenly disappeared.
Equally unnerving to many observers was the rhetoric used on the House floor. Majority
Whip Tom Delay (R-Tex.) read a letter that condemned birth control, day care, and the
absence of prayer in school, and Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) suggested that the Littleton
shootings would not have occurred had the Ten Commandments been posted in Columbine High
By the time the furious legislative session ended, the House of Representatives voted
to post the Ten Commandments in public schools and places and for the third time in three
years (and U.S. history) to amend the Constitution to allow legislation that would ban
desecration of the American flag.
Not since 1954, when Congress inserted the words "under God" into the pledge
of allegiance and placed "In God We Trust" on U.S. currency, have lawmakers
interjected religious symbols so directly into the public sphere.
As if to celebrate victory at the conclusion of two extraordinary weeks for
conservative causes, Representative Helen Chenoweth (R-Ida.) introduced a nonbinding
resolution calling for a national day of solemn prayer, fasting, and humiliation before
God. The resolution garnered 275 votes, not far short of the two-thirds majority it needed
Press Freedoms Under Attack
According to a recent survey by Vanderbilt University's First
- 53% of Americans say the press has too much freedom (15-point increase from 1997).
- Only 65% say newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval
of a story (down from 80% in 1997).
- 49% of Americans cannot name any of the specific rights guaranteed by the First
Margin of error: plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Congressman Burning Mad at Witches
by Norm Allen, Jr.
U.S. Representative Bob Barr (R-Ga.) is leading a political holy
war against Wiccans. The congressman became furious when he recently learned that Wiccans
are practicing their religion on U.S. military bases. According to Barr and other
spokespersons of the religious right, Wiccans practice witchcraft and worship Satan.
Wiccans, however, assert that their religion incorporates pre-Christian religious beliefs
and New Age earth worship. They do not sacrifice animals or cast evil spells.
Two summers ago, the Fort Hood Open Circle was officially approved by the Army at Fort
Hood, Texas, the largest military post in America. Today there are Wiccan groups at Fort
Barrancas in Florida, Fort Wainwright in Alaska, Fort Polk in Louisiana, Kadena Air Force
Base in Okinawa, and Lackland Air Force Base-the only basic training installation in the
Air Force. Wicca is practiced on two Navy ships, and Warner Robins Air Force Base near
Macon, Georgia, allows a group of pagans to meet for monthly discussions. An estimated
50,000 Americans embrace the Wiccan religion.
The religious right is out in full force on this issue. Barr unsuccessfully attempted
to introduce an amendment banning witchcraft to a Defense Department authorization bill in
May. Republican Senator Strom Thurmond promised to put forth legislation to stop the
military from aiding witchcraft. At least 13 religious organizations, including the
Christian Coalition, have called on Christians to boycott the Army until it stops the
"official approval of Satanism and witchcraft. . . ."
Some Wiccans fear for their safety. They have reported receiving threatening phone
calls and e-mail messages. The language of some conservative Christians has sounded
frighteningly similar to that of witch-hunters of the past.
Wicca is defended by top military officials and protected by the First Amendment. The
IRS officially recognizes it as a religion, and Georgia-the state Barr represents-has
granted it tax-exempt status since 1981.
by Norm Allen, Jr.
Conservative Christians are angered over the swearing in of the
first openly gay ambassador of America, James C. Hormel. Republican Senators had held up
his nomination as ambassador to Luxembourg since 1997 because he is gay, but Clinton gave
Hormel the appointment while the Senate was in recess, much to the ire of religious
Hormel, a former dean of the University of Chicago law school, used some of his
family's meatpacking money to aid in the creation of the Human Rights Campaign, the
largest and most influential gay and lesbian political group in the United States.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to appoint Hormel by 16-2. Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright supported the appointment. "Neither race, nor creed, nor
gender, nor sexual orientation should be relevant to the selection of the ambassadors for
the United States," she said.
Members of the Traditional Values Coalition protested outside the State Department as
Hormel was sworn in. The Southern Baptist Convention voted overwhelmingly to urge Clinton
to rescind the appointment. A U.S. Catholic group also condemned the appointment; but
leaders of Luxembourg, which is 97% Catholic, supported it.
RLPA Dangerous, Say Civil Libertarians
by Brian Turner
On July 15, despite strong objections from civil and gay rights
organizations, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Religious Liberty Protection
Act (RLPA), a bill designed to protect against state and local laws that place "a
substantial burden upon a person's religious exercise."
Supporters of the legislation cited a long list of infringements upon religious
liberties, including zoning regulations that discriminate against religious groups, laws
against serving communion wine to children, and Muslim firefighters being unable to wear
However, opponents of the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and
the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, fear that civil rights
will be trampled by the RLPA.
Legislative Counsel for the ACLU Christopher Anders noted that, because of the RLPA,
landlords and employers could now use religious belief as a weapon to discriminate against
would-be tenants and employees.
Doug Ireland, writing for The Nation on July 12, stated, "[T]he bill would permit
people to cite religion as a reason for discriminating not just against homosexuals but
also against people with other differences of which they disapprove on some ostensibly
Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a co-author of the bill, withdrew his support
after an amendment, designed to protect civil rights, was defeated by the House. Opponents
of the amendment stated that it would give the impression that religious rights were
In 1993, a bill similar to the RLPA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was signed
into law, but was subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court, which stated that
Congress had exceeded its constitutional authority. Authors of the RLPA sought to bypass
such a ruling by limiting its scope to interstate commerce, federally funded programs, and
discriminatory land-use regulations.
by Derek Araujo
Six Republican senators are seeking a criminal investigation of
Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), the nation's leading
church-state watchdog group.
On July 2, Senators Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), and Jesse Helms
(R-N.C.) sent a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno requesting that the Justice
Department investigate AU's activities. They were later joined by senators Strom Thurmond
(R-S.C.), Don Nickles (R-Okla.), and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). The senators suggested AU may
have attempted to "disenfranchise religious voters by intimidating people of faith
into not participating in the political process."
Barry Lynn, executive director of AU, demanded a prompt apology and retraction, calling
the accusation "a bald-faced lie." Lynn says the senators' letter may have been
instigated by a July 17 meeting between Pat Robertson, TV preacher and head of the
Christian Coalition, and Republican senate leadership, including senator Coverdell. The
senators' letter was sent two weeks later, indicting the Coalition's most persistent
critic and emphasizing support for the Christian Coalition's "lawful
Lynn told Free Inquiry that "When I first saw the letter, I thought it was a joke.
I couldn't believe that members of the United States Senate would take such a ludicrous
position." Lynn says that AU will continue to scrutinize the Christian Coalition and
reveal any unlawful politicking. "I don't think the Christian Coalition is anything
but an arm of the Republican party that wishes it were the whole body," said Lynn.
At present it is unclear whether the Justice Department will pursue the investigation.