Rep. Istook: Still Mistook

Some people just don't get it.

In light of the events of Sept. 11, it would seem obvious that the last thing this country needs is government-supported religion and official programs of coercive prayer in our public schools.

Nevertheless, U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook has decided the time is right to reintroduce his "Religious Speech Amendment." If made part of the Constitution, Istook's amendment would allow public schools to sponsor prayer and other forms of religious worship and would encourage government officials to adorn public buildings with sectarian slogans, symbols and icons.

Istook's timing could not possibly be worse. As the nation strives for unity during the ongoing war against terrorism, we definitely don't need programs or policies that would allow the government to foster religious divisiveness.

Yet that's exactly what Istook's proposal would bring us. Under the guise of promoting religious "free speech," it would in fact establish religious majoritarianism. It would divide Americans including very young schoolchildren along religious lines and make some people feel like second-class citizens.

Istook's proposal is straight out of the Middle Ages. That was a period when religion and government merged as one and popes and kings either battled for supremacy or joined forces to crush anyone who dared to even question the state's orthodoxy.

Most people would look at that period and breathe a sigh of relief, thankful to live in more enlightened times. But there has always been a faction in America's religious and political community that yearns for a type of "theocracy lite," where the government gives aid and comfort to their religion.

America is home to some 2,000 religious groups. We cannot maintain our unity as a nation if we are squabbling over which faith will get the government's nod of approval in every community across the land.

In 1998 the House of Representatives voted on an earlier version of Istook's amendment. To the House's shame, it received a simple majority in favor. The good news is it fell far short of the two-thirds majority required for passage. In light of the lessons of Sept. 11, this amendment deserves an even bigger trouncing this time.