Here We Go Again

Vernon L. Alger July/August 1997
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Thank the Lord for that, especially now as Congress is again faced with another sorrowfully misleading proposal to undo Establishment Clause protections.

Misnamed the Religious Freedom Amendment, the proposal (also known as the Ishtook Amendment) reads: "To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: The people's right to pray or to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, or tradition on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. The government shall not require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, initiate or designate school prayers, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion."

From start to finish, the whole premise, language, and intent of the proposal is bogus. The bill states that its purpose is "To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience." That's a funny proposal for a nation that for more than 200 years has been an example to the world for religious freedom. What it really says is "To secure the people's right to acknowledge God even in a way that infringes upon the freedoms and conscience of others." The next line is that the right to pray or acknowledge religious belief "on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed."

One slight problem: people are already allowed to pray on public property and, in various ways, acknowledge religious belief both on public property and in public schools just as long as certain parameters are met, parameters designed to protect the religious freedoms of those (especially school-age children) whose dictates of conscience don't allow them to acknowledge religious "belief, heritage, or tradition" in the manner of the majority.

If passed, this amendment could mean that if a fundamentalist Baptist third-grade teacher wanted to spend the morning, in the best of Protestant "beliefs, heritage, and tradition," railing against the evils of papal Rome as the antichrist, Catholic students in the class would have to endure it, or leave. That's hardly what religious freedom is all about.

The last line is the most deceptive of all: linking a ban on government coercion of prayer to a denial of "equal access" of benefits based on religion, as if these two different functions of the Establishment Clause were inextricably linked.

First, because the Establishment Clause already bans government coercion of prayer, the first part of the line is just rhetoric to sound protective of religious freedom in order to make the next part, which forbids denial of "benefits on account of religion," seem less radical than it is. Indeed, one purpose of the Establishment Clause is to protect people from having to pay taxes to support religious beliefs they don't believe in. In other words, the clause demands that certain "benefits on account of religion" be denied. Just read James Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance, which was nothing if not an attempt to deny churches "benefits" based on religion.

If this latest proposed amendment is passed, and no "benefits" are to be denied on account of religion, then Moonies, Scientologists, and the few remaining Heaven's Gate people (who haven't been whisked away on the UFO behind Hale-Bopp) would be entitled to tax money for their religious endeavors. Fortunately, the Founders didn't make the amendment process simple. With proposals like this, we should be thankful for their foresight.


A recent newsletter by the American Family Association exposed some of the latest government-subsidized "art" when it listed the videos produced by a film company called Women Make Movies, Inc., which has received $112,700 over the past three years from the National Endowment for the Arts (the NEA).

The following, excerpted from a Women Make Movies catalog, shows our tax dollars at work: Blood Sister centers on a diverse cross section of the lesbian S&M community . . . The unblinking closeup of their traditions and lifestyle, which embrace political activism and community service as well as the commitment to sexual pleasure heightened by pain . . . . The Match That Started My Fire is an exciting experimental comedy in which the joy of sexual pleasure is discovered and experienced by women in their childhood and early teens. Climbing a rope, descending a slide, being stung by insects. . . . The film is a visual montage of images that evoke a world of 1960s kitsch and nostalgia, with occasional darker hints of taboo and transgression. Hide and Seek Sup Friedrich's brilliant new film mixes documentary and fiction to create a fascinating new portrait of lesbian childhood. . . ."

Though, according to American jurisprudence, the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment protects dirty movies, nothing in the clause mandates that the government fund them and the cries of "censorship" that civil libertarians spout when tax money for this filth is removed (or threatened to be removed) ring as hollow as do the cries of "religious persecution" from Christians who don't get tax dollars for their sectarian endeavors.


Talk about an egregious violation of religious liberty - prosecutors in Lane County, Oregon, secretly taped a prisoner's confession to a Roman Catholic priest (see Liberty, Sept/Oct 1996). When knowledge of the recording was made public, the ensuing brouhaha (taping a penitent in confession to his priest! Come on, is this the 1990s in America or the 1930s in Germany?) led to a suit filed by the priest and his archbishop, who asked that the tape be destroyed and that no further taping be done between prisoners and clergy. The matter was complicated, however, because the prisoner, Conan Hale, requested that the tape be preserved. Hale said that in his confession, he admitted only to burglary, not to the three counts of murder he was charged with, and thus he wanted the confession to be used as evidence.

The case, Mockaitis v. Harcleroad, reached the ninth circuit court this year, which ruled that though prison officials could no longer tape confidential communications between prisoners and clergy (because knowledge that a confession could become public would deter penitents from confessing their sins), the tape did not have to be destroyed because the prisoner himself wanted the tape preserved and had, in fact, disclosed the contents of the confession.

Though prison officials can no longer secretly tape confidential communication between clergy and penitents (imagine, having to go to court to get that point across; kind of reminds one of the "anti-lynching" laws of days past), considering the nature of the Catholic sacrament of confession, the court would have struck a bolder stand for religious freedom had it ordered the tape destroyed anyway.


Talking about the recent brouhaha over Judge Moore's Ten Commandment plaque on the courtroom wall, former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan was quoted in Church and State magazine as saying: "Are the Ten Commandments a religious document? Of course they are. . . . They were a foundation of American law. From Sunday blue laws to anti-blasphemy laws, to laws against adultery, false witness, and murder, they served as the basis upon which we built much of our early civil code and public life. Who is to tell us they cannot serve so again?"

Sure, why can't they? Just one slight problem: though the Ten Commandments are, indeed, a God-given code of personal morality and conduct, with few exceptions - such as the prohibitions against murder and stealing and, in some cases, lying - they don't work too well when legislated.

How would a law requiring children to honor their parents be phrased, much less enforced? And what would be the punishment for violation? Stoning? And, maybe in George Orwell's 1984 "thought crime" was verboten, but in real life who's going to enforce a law against coveting your neighbor's ox or ass (assuming they even have one).

The first few commandments, meanwhile, are prohibitions on worshiping false gods. That sounds just like what America needs: the state making sure people have "no other gods" except the Lord.

And Sunday blue laws? Another grand idea. Of course, if we're going to enforce the Ten Commandments, then we would have Saturday, not Sunday, laws, because the fourth commandment reads to keep "the seventh day" holy, which is Saturday, not Sunday.

Then, too, in the idyllic and happy days of early America when the Ten Commandments were the foundation of "our early civil code and public life," enforcement of the fourth commandment often not only forbade work, but required church attendance. Imagine, forcing 280 million Americans to attend church every Sunday.

Buchanan, a Roman Catholic, must have forgotten, too, that many of these religious laws he longs for were directed specifically against his faith. Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, had on the books in 1661 the following religious statute: "We do by these presents for our heirs and successors grant, establish and ordain that forever hereafter there shall be liberty of conscience allowed in the worship of God to all Christians (except Papists). . . ."

Or maybe he would like to live under this religious law (1664): "That no Jesuit or spiritual or ecclesiastical person (as they are termed), ordained by the authority of the pope or see of Rome, shall henceforth at any time repair to, or come within this jurisdiction."

Maryland also had a law (1633) that "all acts of the Roman Catholic religion . . . be done as privately as may be, and that they instruct all Roman Catholics to be silent upon all occasions of discourse concerning matters of religion."

In North Carolina, an act passed in 1696 granted "full, free, and undisturbed exercise" of conscience, "Papists only excepted." Georgia's Charter in 1732 granted full religious freedom to all settlers, "except Papists."

Religious legislation. Why not? It worked so well in early America, let's bring it back again.


Article Author: Vernon L. Alger