Religious Equality Amendment Promoted by Stealth (June/July 1995)

The Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote a letter of protest in early June to U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, Chair of the Committee on the Judiciary, condemning “the nefarious, anti-democratic and underhanded stealth tactics” being practiced by the Committee to pursue the so-called “religious equality” amendment.

Following a hearing in early June called by the House Judiciary subcommittee on “religious liberty and the Bill of Rights,” it was announced that the House Judiciary subcommittee has scheduled hearings nationwide this summer so that panel members can hear from religionists claiming their religious liberties have been infringed upon.

The subcommittee has refused to give more than a week’s advance notice to Democrats or the public, and has also refused to reveal the proposed wording of the amendment.

Wrote the Foundation to Hyde:

“The Committee dishonors the tradition of open government and debate by keeping secret its schedule of hearings until the last possible moment.

“Calling such meetings ‘oversight, fact-finding’ hearings is dishonest. The clear purpose is to promote the ‘religious equality’ amendment. This duplicity permits the Committee to contact in advance only its allies, to orchestrate hearings, to squelch dissent, and, in short, to do the opposite of ‘finding facts.’

“The American people are subjected to the further injustice of being denied any draft of the ‘religious equality’ amendment. This deliberately and unethically stifles open debate and the Jeffersonian ‘marketplace of ideas.’

“Furthermore, the Committee should be seeking testimony from individuals, such as freethinkers and other minorities, who have been harmed by religious majorities and by officials who use their office to illegally promote religion. That’s the real untold story.”

The Foundation called on the Committee to halt any further hearings “until such time as it is prepared to grant all citizens, whether Democrat or Republican, Atheist, Jew or Christian, equal notice and an equal chance to testify and participate.”

According to Jan Crawford Greenburg with the Washington bureau of the Chicago Tribune, the so-called “religious equality” amendment has been drafted by Christian groups, such as Family Research Council, the legal arm of the Christian Coalition, and the Traditional Values Coalition led by Rev. Lou Sheldon, claiming the support of 31,000 churches. University of Chicago law professor Michael McConnell, who argued before the Supreme Court in the University of Virginia lawsuit on behalf of the Christian students seeking public funding, told the reporter he drafted a section of the undisclosed amendment. It would prohibit the government from denying benefits to any person or group “on account of the religious character” of their “speech, ideas, motivations or identity.”

The amendment would eviscerate the Establishment Clause, contend separationists.

The Chicago Tribune editorialized against the proposed Religious Equality amendment on June 10, 1995:

“One version of the amendment, drafted by the Traditional Values Coalition, would apparently give public school teachers and administrators the right to proselytize students during school hours. It would also enshrine the right of governmental bodies to give ‘ceremonial acknowledgment’ to particular religious beliefs–say, putting a cross on the courthouse or insisting on prayers at public events.

“That approach overrides the wisdom of the 1st Amendment. The founders knew that religion is better off without either help or hindrance from government. It’s a lesson the proponents of a religious equality amendment would do well to learn.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation