What's Wrong with Pledge and Prayer

Republican Rep. Ernest Istook, known for his failed Religious Freedom Amendment (RFA) and other similar radical proposals, is back at it. Earlier this month, along with Democrat Rep. Sanford Bishop and 88 other cosponsors, Istook introduced the Pledge and Prayer Amendment, H.J. Res. 46.

Istook’s ongoing pursuit of dangerous amendments under the guise of religious freedom reveals his lack of regard for religious freedom in its truest sense. Deceiving language, as always, is used to lure an uninformed populace into favoring his proposed amendment.

The wording is as follows: To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: The people retain the right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including schools. The United States and the States shall not establish any official religion nor require any person to join in prayer or religious activity.

But our Bill of Rights already contains a religious freedom amendment, the First, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .”

Yet this doesn’t satisfy the Christian Right because the First Amendment protects the freedom of all Americans, while providing a wall between church and state. What the religious right wants is the freedom to proselytize in public schools and all government arenas and it wants to use our tax dollars in doing so. It favors conservative-Christian religious freedom, not the freedom to believe and practice as each American chooses.

At first glance, the proposed amendment appears harmless, but when dissected, serious flaws are uncovered. The first line, “To secure the peopleas right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience” (identical to the wording in the failed RFA) doesnat allow for the freedom not to acknowledge God or to acknowledge many Gods, Buddha, or any other divine figure. By specifically using the term God, rather than religion as the First Amendment does, it creates a very illusive and different meaning.

The next phrase, “The people retain the right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including schools,” again, is a near-duplication of the wording of the RFA. But, the First Amendment already allows children to pray silently in the classroom and at lunch-time and even to form prayer groups before and after school on school grounds.

We also already have the freedom to pray silently at government meetings and in courtrooms; to use public schools, parks, and other facilities for religious gatherings; and to practice religion in our homes and churches. But the proposed Amendment would allow students and even administrators and teachers to invoke prayer and Bible readings in the classroom and to proselytize.

The one part of this proposal that suggests protection for others, “The United States and the States shall not establish any official religion nor require any person to join in prayer or religious activity” is already a protection under the First Amendment. But, the particular wording of the rest of the proposed Amendment, as described, would render this part meaningless.

The fact that government shall not “establisha or require” a religious activity wouldn’t prevent minority students from feeling compelled when classmates or teachers are invoking or participating in classroom prayer. Would a child choose not to participate in a religious ritual, he or she would likely be ostracized, as has historically been the case when religion and prayer enter the public classroom.

Particularly revealing of the intent of this amendment is that the right to post the Ten Commandments in public schools and other public facilities is one its stated purposes. Not only has Istook acknowledged this, but it’s included as part of the joint resolution.

The Pledge and Prayer Amendment, if ratified, would break down the wall between church and state, destroying religious freedom. Given the atmosphere since 9-11, our current war on Iraq, and Republican control in the House, Senate, and the Presidency, it seems a frightening possibility such an extreme measure could pass, unless the American people take a stand. The Pledge and Prayer Amendment is blatantly nothing more than an attack on religious freedom, which, despite rampant violations that persist, Americans currently truly possess. Let's fight to keep it that way.

Kimberly Blaker is editor and co-author of “The Fundamentals of Extremism: the Christian Right in America.

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