October 1999 AU Bulletin

Istook Amendment Reintroduced In House

As Church & State was going to press, Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK) reintroduced a constitutional amendment to effectively erase church-state separation from the Constitution.

At a rally at the Bible Way Church near the Capitol in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Religious Right figure William Murray and accompanied by several gospel choirs, Istook presented his so-called "Religious Freedom Amendment" to significant fanfare. The effort comes 16 months after the House of Representatives rejected an identical effort to add Istook's measure to the Constitution. Though the vote was 224-206 in favor of the proposal, that tally fell far short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass a constitutional amendment.

The text of the Istook scheme, which is identical to his previous effort, reads, "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."

Constitutional experts believe the amendment would lead to mandatory prayer in public schools, provide support for private religious schools and allow display of religious symbols at government buildings.

"Rep. Istook has again climbed aboard a train called 'political pandering' to take the Constitution to a place it should not go," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Far from protecting religious freedom, this amendment would radically erase the liberties we currently enjoy. This is a full frontal assault on the First Amendment that will be repelled."

House Majority Leader Dick Armey predicted that the amendment will meet with success this time. "It will pass the House," Armey said.

Michigan School Voucher Drive Sparks Controversy

A private school voucher plan proposed for the November 2000 ballot in Michigan is already provoking controversy.

The scheme, backed by millionaire business executive Richard DeVos, would revise the state constitution to allow voucher aid to religious and other private schools and make other changes in education. A group called Kids First! Yes! is circulating petitions to place the plan before the voters, and supporters intend to spend $5 million promoting it.

The proposal has drawn fire, however, from public school advocates. "It's obviously a slap at public schools," Lu Battaglieri, incoming president of the of the Michigan Education Association, told the Associated Press. "Instead of trying to fix them...(they're) going to destroy them."

Republican Gov. John Engler has also expressed skepticism about the plan, saying he will not endorse it or support it.

A Detroit News poll conducted in mid-October showed a close division among the state's voters. Forty-seven percent favored the proposal, 43 percent opposed it and 10 percent were undecided.

Choir Prayer At Public Park In New York Criticized

A gospel choir that offered a prayer session at a government-owned amusement park has been asked to stick to singing, not preaching.

The United World Outreach Praise Choir, which has been performing annually at Rye Playland amusement park in Westchester County, N.Y., for the last 10 years, did something a little different in late August when performers turned an intermission into an opportunity to lead a Christian prayer session.

After the first of two scheduled performances, some in the audience were offended. Joseph Montalto, the park director, asked the choir's leader, Gregory Davis, to leave the prayers out of the next show. When Davis refused, Montalto told the choir there would be no second show.

Davis told Westchester's Journal News that prayer was a necessary part of the choir's performance. "You can't have gospel music without praising God," he said.

Susan Tolchin, a spokeswoman for Westchester County, said park officials made an effort to work out a compromise with the choir, but the group chose not to cooperate.

Pennsylvania Tax On Bibles Appealed To Supreme Court

After twice losing in state courts, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R) has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider whether a sales tax exemption for religious publications is constitutional.

In his June 20 appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ridge argued, "It is entirely appropriate for the state to encourage religion in our communities by exempting religious publications from the sales tax." Ridge added, "Taxing those who want to purchase religious publications is wrong."

However, the state Supreme Court ruled differently in April. Writing for the court, Justice Sandra Schultz Newman said the policy of making religious publications tax-exempt while taxing non-religious publications shows a "preference for communication of religious messages." This Haller v. Commonwealth ruling upheld a similar decision by a state district court.

If the exemption were eliminated, Pennsylvania would receive $900,000 in tax revenue every year.

Minister Protests Pokemon Toys With Blowtorch

A Colorado Springs children's pastor is so convinced that Pokemon children's games and toys are evil that he used a sword and blowtorch on the playthings during an August service.

According to a report in the Denver Post, Mark Juvera at Grace Fellowship Church burned Pokemon trading cards with a blowtorch and hit an action figure with a 30-inch sword in front of an audience of 85 children between the ages of 6 and 12. Juvera's 9-year-old son also participated in the service by tearing the limbs and head off a Pokemon doll.

The Post article went to report that children chanted "burn it" and "chop it up" during Juvera's sermon.

Mark Cowart, pastor at Grace Fellowship Church, said the theatrics Juvera used were necessary, because "a little church is competing against Hollywood with multi-billion budgets" for children's attention. Cowart added that he believes that the Pokemon figures' horns and use of "magic" suggest trouble.

"It's got sugar coating on it, but, underneath, it's poison," Cowart told the Post.

Miss. School Board Reverses Ruling On Star Of David

A Mississippi school board that drew national criticism for stopping a Jewish student from wearing a Star of David necklace has changed its position.

Ryan Green, a high school junior, was originally told that the religious symbol could be considered gang-related and was therefore prohibited. In fact, law enforcement officials had told school officials that a local gang used a six-pointed star as a symbol.

However, with assistance from the state ACLU affiliate, Green's family filed suit against the school district Aug. 20, seeking an injunction against the policy and arguing Green's First Amendment rights had been violated.

Three days later, the Harrison County School Board in Gulfport, Miss., voted unanimously to exempt religious symbols from its anti-gang symbol policy.

"When we made the decision last week, it was based on information from the security officers only," board president Randy Williams said after the reversal. "But we realized that it infringed on freedom of religious expression, and that freedom supersedes the safety issue."

Religious Groups Sue Maryland Over 'Inquisition'

A Maryland task force studying religious "cults" on college campuses has sparked a lawsuit from members of the Seventh-day Adventist and Unification churches, who allege the state is conducting a "religious inquisition."

William T. Wood, chairman of the task force and a member of the Maryland Board of Regents, said that no religious groups were being targeted, but the task force is reviewing groups that "may be causing problems."

The religious groups charge in their Miller v. Wood lawsuit that the Task Force to Study the Effects of Cult Activities on Public Senior Higher Education Institutions is violating the First Amendment and the state constitution's Declaration of Human Rights.

Wiccan Charged Under N.C. Anti-Divination Law

A North Carolina woman has been charged with violating a rarely enforced 1951 law that prohibits the "arts of phrenology (reading head bumps), palmistry, clairvoyance, fortune telling and other crafts of a similar kind" unless performed at a school, church social or event.

Kindra Rajaniemi was ticketed in August by an Asheville police officer, but is challenging the law, claiming it violates her First Amendment rights. She is receiving legal assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The problem with laws like this is that nobody in the legislature wants to come out and vote to repeal it because they would forever be branded the pro-psychic senator....," Deborah Ross, executive director of the North Carolina ACLU affiliate, told the Associated Press. "It's purely political."

State Department Issues Report On Religious Persecution

The U.S. State Department issued its first annual Report on International Religious Freedom, documenting harsh treatment of religious groups in 194 countries.

The report is the first to be published through the new International Religious Freedom Act, passed with bipartisan support in Congress last year.

Under the guidelines created by Congress, the most egregious offenders of religious freedom, including countries that engage in torture and imprisonment, may be subject to economic sanctions. Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Sudan were listed as among the most oppressive countries.

Robert Seiple, the State Department's ambassador at large for international religious freedom, presented the 1,000-page report to the media Sept. 9. The report, Seiple said, will "signal unambiguously to persecutor and persecuted alike that they will not be forgotten."

Turkish Government Limits Muslim Aid In Quake Relief

The Turkish government, determined to maintain secular law over political Islam, is working to prevent Muslim groups from participating in earthquake relief efforts.

It has been common practice in Turkey for many years for Muslim groups to provide assistance for those in need. However, the fear on the part of government officials is that religious groups that give aid will in the process win over converts, giving Muslim groups increased power and thus threatening political stability in Turkey.

"These [religious] groups are very active whenever there is a crisis, and some people in high places are not happy with this," said Fehmi Koru, the former editor of the pro-Islamic newspaper Zaman, in The New York Times.

Some maintain, however, that Muslim groups are playing a smaller role in relief efforts due to internal difficulties.