Lock That Barn Door Now! by Carol Faulkenberry (December 1997)

An old proverb reminds us that it is too late to lock the barn door after the horse has been stolen. Well, friends, the thieves are now standing outside the barn, and they are planning to steal the horse, the saddle, the bridle, and the oats, and leave us with nothing but the manure.
In the spring of 1997, Rep. Ernest Istook, a Republican from Oklahoma, re-introduced into the House of Representatives a proposed “Religious Freedom Amendment” to the Constitution, also known as “The Christian Nation” Amendment. As with all bills, this was referred to a committee for study. In this case, it was the House Judiciary Committee. Just before Congress adjourned in November, the committee approved this slightly amended version of the proposed amendment:

“To secure the people’s right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Neither the United States nor any state shall establish any official religion, but the people’s right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. Neither the United States nor any state shall require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, prescribe school prayers, discriminate against religion or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion.”

The bill’s nearly 150 cosponsors hope to bring it to a vote in the House of Representatives shortly after Congress reconvenes in late January.

Amending the Constitution is not easy. A proposed amendment must be approved by a two-thirds majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Then it must be ratified by three-fourths of the states. Nevertheless, the Constitution has been amended 27 times. Popular amendments have sometimes been ratified very quickly. The 26th amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971, was ratified slightly less than six weeks after being approved. A nation sick of the Vietnamese War felt strongly that young men subject to the draft should have the privilege of voting for those who had the power of declaring war, so the states responded rapidly.

The proposed Amendment is extremely popular with the politically powerful religious right. The large number of cosponsors indicates that it has tremendous support in the Congress. Throughout the country, it is being supported by a number of religious groups, including the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Traditional Values Coalition, Concerned Women for America, Focus on the Family, the American Center for Law and Justice, the Family Research Council, the General Council of the Assemblies of God, and–of course–the Christian Coalition, which has said it will “spend whatever resources are necessary to mobilize our grass-roots network” for passage.

Nobody’s right to express religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on any public property could be infringed. This means that any and all prayer, reading of the Bible or other religious texts, religious instruction, display of religious pictures and icons, hymn singing, or even preaching in public schools, courtrooms, etc., would be perfectly constitutional. (Let us remember that sending a child to stand in the hall while her class has a morning devotional brands her as “different” and often makes her the object of ridicule and harassment from other children.)

And please notice that final clause, the one that says that the government shall not deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion. Yes, this means that the government could not deny you Social Security benefits just because you had taken up the worship of humpback whales (which is already a protected right). Far more important, it means that neither the federal nor the state government could deny private religious schools funding equal to that which they give public schools. What about government grants? Suppose some “scientific” group applies for a grant to finance a search for Noah’s ark? Religious institutes and charities could be completely public-funded. If you think the tax-exempt status of churches creates an unfair burden on the taxpayer, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

The more of us who are silent, the more dominant will be the strident voices of the religious right. You can’t expect your voice to be heard if you keep your mouth shut.

Lock that barn door now, or the next sound you hear will be the thunder of galloping hooves as that thief rides your horse away into the sunset.

The writer is a Foundation member from Alabama.

Freedom From Religion Foundation