2002: Bills In Congress To Watch Out For

When Congress returns from its recess this month, lawmakers are expected to pick up where they left off: considering dangerous legislation that undermines church-state separation.

President George W. Bush's "faith-based initiative" will likely be near the top of the list. The initiative, which would greatly expand public funding of religious groups to provide social services while removing important legal safeguards, remains a top goal of the administration.

As Church & State went to press in December, the Senate appeared ready to pass a compromise bill focused on encouraging donations to all charities. The proposal contained few of the controversial elements that appeared in the House measure (H.R. 7). But whatever happens with it, the White House is still pushing the original Bush package, and the Senate could take up the House-passed initiative sometime this year.

Perhaps even more dangerous is a looming debate over Rep. Ernest Istook's constitutional amendment to allow government-sponsored religion in public schools and other public buildings.

Although sometimes dubbed a "school prayer" amendment, the Oklahoma Republican's scheme if passed by Congress and ratified by the states would bring devastating changes to the church-state landscape and alter the First Amendment for the first time in American history.

As if that weren't enough, there is legislation pending in the House that would change federal tax law to permit houses of worship to engage in partisan politicking. Complicating matters, political insiders are also expecting clashes over a number of other church-state bills.

With all of this trouble on the way in 2002, advocates of church-state separation must be on the alert. It's likely to be a very difficult year.