Religious Freedom Amendment

January 1996 – In November, 88 members of Congress, led by Representative Earnest Istook (R-OK) introduced a constitutional amendment to protect religious liberties.

The amendment allows student-sponsored prayer in public schools, protects acknowledgements of religious heritage, belief or traditions of the American people and forbids discrimination against expressions or beliefs. The bill also prohibits government promotion of or discrimination against prayers or religious expressions.

The legislation addresses the court decisions and intimidation tactics which have banned holiday decorations reflecting religious traditions, banned Christmas carols or Hanukkah songs from school events, challenged “In God We Trust” on our currency, sought to remove religious emblems from city or state seals, flags or logos, and otherwise served to sanitize simple reflections of America’s heritage.

The following is a list of incidents in which the religious liberties of U.S. citizens have been limited.

Ellen Pearson took her daughter out of  public schools in Virginia after a principal barred her daughter from reading the Bible on the school bus. Mrs. Pearson said her son asked her after hearing of this incident: “Mom, isn’t this a free country?”

In DeFuniak Springs, Florida, a judge ordered the courthouse copy of the Ten Commandments to be covered during a murder trial for fear that jurors would be prejudiced against the defendant if they saw the command “Do not kill.” (State of Florida v. George T. Broxson)

Although states print hundreds of thousands of custom license plates purchased and ordered by individual citizens, Oregon refused to print “PRAY,” Virginia refused to print “GOD 4 US,” and Utah refused to print “THANK GOD,” claiming that such customized license plates violated the Constitution. (Gloria Iverson v. Forbes, Terry Reidenback v. Pethtel and Bebout v. Leimbaugh)

A high-ranking government official from the national drug czar’s office who regularly conducts public school anti-drug rallies was prohibited from doing so in Nacogdoches, Texas, because the federal judge ruled that even though the speaker was an anti-drug expert, he was also known as a Christian minister and was thus disqualified from delivering a secular anti-drug message. (Alexander v. Nacogdoches School District)

In Alaska public schools, students were prohibited from using the word “Christmas” at school, from exchanging Christmas cards or presents, or from displaying anything with the word “Christmas” on it because the word “Christ” was contained in “Christmas.”

Downtown Oklahoma City churches damaged in the bombing of the A.P. Murrah Federal Building are told that federal assistance is available to fix all other damaged privately owned buildings – but not theirs.

The city of Edmond, Oklahoma, was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) because its municipal seal included a cross, recognizing the civic contributions of local churches. A judge ruled in favor of the ACLU, and the case is now being appealed to the Supreme Court.

At a high school in Salt Lake City, Utah, students and parents may face contempt of court charges, because they spontaneously stood and sang “Friends.” A federal judge had banned the song from the graduation ceremony, at the request of a lone student. Singing it was a long tradition at the graduation. The students’ attorneys argued that singing songs that mention “God” or “the Lord” ignored the Supreme Court precedent that prohibits public schools from endorsing religion and compelling students to participate in religious exercises. (Lee v. Weisman)

Christian students at a public high school outside Seattle, Washington, sought permission to gather before school to pray and read Scripture. The school superintendent diligently sought to prevent such meetings. After 10 federal court adjudications (including two trips to the Supreme Court), 18 briefs, 22 depositions, over $400,000 in attorney fees and seven years of litigation, the students won their right to meet as a spiritual group before the school day begins.

California Internal Revenue Service workers are ordered to keep items “which would be considered intrusive” off their desks and out of sight. Examples? “Religious symbols and sexually suggestive cartoons or calendars.” The IRS thinks a cross or Star of David is as offensive as a pin-up calendar!

In Galveston, Texas, a judge threatened to post a federal marshal at commencement exercises to prevent anyone from saying the name of Jesus if a prayer was offered.

One Internal Revenue Service (IRS) worker who displayed a small manger scene at Christmastime was ordered to remove it because a co-worker complained it differed from their religious belief. Another IRS worker was directed that a cross or a Bible had to be kept out of sight. According to the memo: “Employees wishing to bring personal religious items within their work area should keep the items in an enclosed space within their work station, available for their personal review only.

A high school valedictorian in Honolulu, Hawaii, used “God” during her speech at the graduation ceremony. By thanking God in her speech, the school principal pointed out, the student had defied Department of Education policy that “prayer and other activities serving a religious purpose cannot be included in graduation exercises....”

The city of San Jose, California, ignored a local protest against building a statue of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl in Plaza de Cesar Chavez. San Jose paid the artist $400,000 and spent another $100,000 installing the statue. (Shortly thereafter, the city refused to permit a nativity scene in a community park because it would violate the principle of separation of church and state!)

In Bishop v. Aronov, a tenure-track professor of physiology at a public university made occasional references in class to his religious beliefs and offered an optional, after-class lecture entitled “Evidences of God in Human Physiology.” The Dean ordered him to cease these activities, despite the fact that professors at the university have an undoubted academic freedom to make personal remarks during class so long as the remarks are not excessive, disruptive or coercive. Additionally, the after-class lecture was within his professional expertise. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Dean’s order because the subject and presentation of the proposed class may violate the Establishment Clause.

In Guidry v. Broussard, the class valedictorian informed the school principal of her intention to devote a portion of her graduation speech to the importance of Jesus Christ in her life. The principal ordered her to delete the passage; she refused and was removed from the graduation program. The district court upheld the principal’s action and the court of appeals affirmed.

In Perumal v. Saddleback Valley School District, students at a Southern California public high school were forbidden from distributing leaflets inviting other students to their Bible study, despite a California statute permitting students to distribute petitions and other printed materials. The state appellate court upheld the school’s action, holding that permitting the students to distribute the leaflets would violate the Establishment Clause. “The inevitable consequence of the Establishment Clause when applied to religious ritual on school property,” the court reasoned, “is to restrict that activity to preserve the wall between church and state.”

Roberts v. Madigan was a case in which a fifth grade public school teacher was ordered by the assistant principal to remove a Bible from the surface of his desk, to refrain from reading the Bible during the class silent reading period, and to remove two illustrated books of Bible stories from a classroom library of over 350 volumes. The Court of Appeals upheld the principal’s action, holding that the teacher’s conduct violated the Establishment Clause.

A high school in Burbank, Washington, revoked permission for prayers at its May 1995 graduation ceremony because of concerns about the costs of a threatened lawsuit. The Columbia School Board voted to revoke an earlier unanimous vote to allow the prayers during opening and closing graduation ceremonies after  receiving a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union in Seattle stating that the state constitution, the federal laws, and the Constitution have determined such activity to be “inappropriate.”

At Bushnell-Prairie City Elementary School in Illinois, a second-grade teacher saw a couple of her students praying over their lunches in the cafeteria. When her class returned to its room after lunch, she said she observed some students praying over their lunches. She told the class that it was against the law to pray in school. As parents began to complain about this event, they also learned one student had not prayed over his lunch for more than a month because the principal, after observing him pray, told him praying in school was against the law. It was not until parents urged the principal to educate school staff about the rights of students to pray in public schools, that the children could engage in prayer once again.

In Commonwealth v. Chambers, because a prosecuting attorney mentioned seven words from the Bible in the courtroom, a statement which lasted less than five seconds, a jury sentence was overturned for a man convicted of brutally clubbing to death a 71-year-old woman.