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Free Inquiry Frontlines

Volume 19, Number 4
Fall, 1999

The following articles are from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 19, Number 4.

Congress Bludgeons First Amendment

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 School.

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 to pass.

Press Freedoms Under Attack

According to a recent survey by Vanderbilt University's First Amendment Center:

  • 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 Amendment.

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.

Religionists Bash Gay Envoy

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 conservatives.

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 beards.

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 religious grounds."

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 second-class rights.

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.

Senate Conservatives Attack Americans United

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 activities."

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.

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