THEISTWATCH FOR MAY 16, 1995 UNITED STATES - School Prayer/+quot;Religious Equality+quot;

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THEISTWATCH FOR MAY 16, 1995 ____________________ ____________________ UNITED STATES--School Prayer/"Religious Equality" Amendment in Trouble GEORGIA--Anti-Abortion Agenda Gets Short Billing at GOP Fest UNITED STATES--Buchanan: No Plans for Third Party Bid WASHINGTON--Proposed Embassy Move Has Serious Theo-political consequences WORLD--TheistWatch Short Shots ____________________ ____________________ SCHOOL PRAYER/"RELIGIOUS EQUALITY" AMENDMENT IN TROUBLE School Prayer Advocates Are Trying to Win Their Case With a "Religious Equality" Amendment to the Constitution. But Language is Proving to be a Difficult Problem. by Conrad F. Goeringer TW(5/16) -- On the eve of the Christian Coalition's unveiling of its "Contract With the American Family," a key piece of the group's social agenda -- getting prayer and religious instruction back into the public schools -- has encountered new obstacles. Originally, everyone from the Coalition and its allies in Congress like House Majority Newt Gingrich were aiming for a July 4, 1995, deadline in their timing for a constitutional amendment. Gingrich turned the logistics and details over to Rep. Eugene Istook (R-Okla.), who met with a number of Christian evangelical groups in March. Realizing that a simple legislative bill to return prayer to the public schools probably would not pass constitutional review by the Supreme Court even if it cleared Congress, the group decided on a broader strategy. School prayer is now part of a larger constitutional amendment still being crafted, which would attempt to deal with other issues concerning "religious equality." But there are problems in crafting such an amendment. Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice -- a group founded by TV evangelist Pat Robertson, and one of the participants in the March get-together with Istook -- told USA TODAY (May 15) that "this is an amendment to the Constitution, and it needs to be done properly." Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council was a bit more forthright though; "If you get 10 legal scholars in a room to talk about this, you get 11 different opinions." Now some observers believe that even Speaker Gingrich admits that the amendment will not be ready for the original July 4 deadline. Amendment supporters are desperately trying to find language which will not offend social and political moderates, but still achieve the goal of allowing a broad range of religious activities in the school. One version would have required government not to "deny benefits or otherwise discriminate against" anyone on religious grounds. While a number of forms of discrimination based on religious bias are prohibited by national, state and local laws, critics say that this specific wording opened the door for school voucher schemes. That version was dropped. A Potential Ambush? By crafting the proposed amendment in terms of religious expression and liberty, supporters of school prayer hope to have legislation which appears more acceptable than previous unsuccessful legislative efforts. President Clinton, for instance, says that he would support a "moment of silence," but opposes a prayer. Amendment boosters have also apparently abandoned the notion of a "mandatory" prayer, insisting that they do not seek to compel others to pray. Some liberal denominations are finding this acceptable. But supporters of state/church separation see a potential ambush in any Religious Liberties Amendment. While Istook's group wants to guarantee rights for religious students clubs and similar activities, it must still confront the question of coercion in the classroom. While students may not be forced to pray, those who do not pray often experience harassment, exclusion, other forms of peer group pressure and even violence. And praying as a group in the classroom is not the same as individual religious kids praying in the cafeteria before lunch. Activities in the classroom are part of the "official school day." It is difficult to see how a teacher, or even a student, orchestrating a prayer does not constitute the sanction of religious ritual. Whose History? There are other problems as well. Attempts to emphasize religion as an integral part of American history raise serious questions concerning the version of history which may be taught. Just as different religious groups quarreled over whose edition of the Bible was to be read in classes, different groups can well have serious disagreements over whose religious exploits shall be taught. Some critics ask if even a "comparative religion" course can objectively be presented by a person who is an advocate for religion. Other parts of the school curriculum, such as those dealing with "values" and ethics, may become potential situations for religious indoctrination or proselytizing as well. It remains to be seen whether school prayer legislation in its new, dressed up format of a Religious Equality Amendment can manage to get support from two-thirds of the Congress and then be ratified by three-fourths of the individual States. An Istook aide told USA TODAY "It's a heck of a project. . . . We're going to have one good shot to pass this. It has to be straightforward and has to have all the intended consequences and none of the unintended consequences." An Unnecessary Response State/church separation advocates, though, insist that there is freedom of and from religion, and that the First Amendment has done a sufficient job for the most part in guaranteeing both. Some point to the numerous listings which can be found in just about any phone book yellow-pages under the heading "Churches" -- or the "Religion" section of newspapers -- to demonstrate that religious people have ample opportunity and facility to exercise their beliefs and rituals. They insist that trying to move religion into public institutions, especially school classrooms, is more than free exercise -- it amounts to an endorsement by the government of religious belief. Critics also insist that the need for a Religious Equality Amendment simply does not exist; they say that youngsters in public schools are free to pray on their own time, but that prayer and religious indoctrination have no place in the public school system. Charges that rights of religious students are being violated are simply "bogus" and is simply an attempt to reinstate prayer -- in some form -- into government. But people on both sides of the school prayer issue will be watching tomorrow, Wednesday, May 17, when the Christian Coalition unveils its program. Director Ralph Reed insists that "they (the points in the CC Contract) aren't the ten commandments." But critics know that after the role groups like his played in the November elections, the Coalition points are items on a political bill which has come due. ANTI-ABORTION AGENDA GETS SHORT BILLING AT GOP FEST by Conrad F. Goeringer In another indication that some Republicans are trying to avoid hot topics like abortion, a GOP weekend get-together in Georgia over the weekend of May 13 saw little mention of the anti-choice agenda, even by some of the party standard- bearers. Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole -- considered to be the front-runner for the nomination in 1996 -- did not mention abortion in his videotaped message to the gathering. Nor did former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander. Nor did Gov. Pete Wilson. A few "Keep Our Platform Pro-Life" buttons were noticed, but according to news reports the talk was about the need to stress economic issues, and avoid the abortion debate. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas included only one reference to the subject when he said "I want every child welcomed into life and love." And about the only candidate who discussed the subject was syndicated talk-show host and former State Department official Alan Keyes. He blasted the Roe v. Wade decision as "a constitutional principle that strikes at the heart of our basic moral values." He continued: "None of us has the right for our utilitarian purposes or our convenience to take the life of another human being. . . . I'm spreading the word that the Republican party cannot retreat from it." Many Republicans, however, would like to retreat from the abortion issue. Some observers say that it cost the GOP the White House in the last election, when George Bush and Dan Quayle decided to run on a platform of "family values." The GOP strategy of stressing economic issues seemed to have worked in the 1994 congressional elections, however, as the party gained control of both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. The Georgia meeting underscores the un- easiness of many GOP leaders on the abortion question and related social issues such as school prayer and vouchers for parochial schools. Both Dole and Gramm are "under pressure" from conservative evangelicals to stress a right-wing, fundamentalist social agenda -- a move that could cost either candidate votes in a race against President Clinton. BUCHANAN; NO PLANS FOR THIRD PARTY BID by Conrad F. Goeringer Conservative commentator and GOP presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan said last Friday (5/12) that he will not launch a third party bid if he is unsuccessful in winning the Republican nomination. Buchanan made the remark while appearing on John McLaughlin's "One on One" TV program. In 1992, Buchanan ran against incumbent President George Bush. Although Bush won the nomination handily, Buchanan's candidacy drew the President out on a number of issues. To keep the loyalty of the party's fundamentalist Christian right wing, Bush and then Vice-President Dan Quayle pushed their "family values" oriented campaign. Despite Bush's enormous popularity stemming from the war with Iraq (he had a record 79 percent approval rating in some polls), Bill Clinton defeated the incumbent president. Some attributed the GOP loss to the party platform's opposition to legal abortion, and its stand on other social issues. Buchanan's withdrawal from any third party bid means that some social conservative groups will be out in the cold if they do not succeed in shaping a GOP platform -- and having a presidential candidate -- to their liking. PROPOSED EMBASSY MOVE HAS SERIOUS THEO-POLITICAL CONSEQUENCES A Bill Submitted by Sen. Robert Dole Would Move the U.S. Embassy In Israel From Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Does This Endanger the Peace Process? by Conrad F. Goeringer A bill introduced last Tuesday (May 9) by Sen. Robert Dole to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel is seen as a possible threat to the fragile peace process there attempting to unite progressive elements on both sides. Dole's bill called for construction of a new embassy building to begin by next year, and for the move to be completed by May 1999. Muslims in Jerusalem says that the land for the proposed site belongs to them.The U.S. has leased the undeveloped 10- acre plot since the late 1980s from the Israel Land Authority. The Islamic Waqf, a bureau which oversees Muslim "holy places" in Jerusalem and the West Bank, says that it has owned the parcel for at least 200 years. The director of the Waqf was quoted by the New York Times as insisting that "There is no possibility for argument about this land because God does not allow the transferring of Islamic property to others." Dole's bill also drew immediate outrage from the Clinton administration, which feels that such a move would only serve to endanger the delicate peace negotiations going on between Israelis and Palestinians. A Religious Basis The land is symbolically important to a number of factions. Muslims see Jerusalem as their territory. A holy site known as the Mount is supposedly the place from which their prophet Mohammed flew off to heaven. Zionist Jews lay claim to the same real estate insisting that King David, a Hebrew oligarch, established Jerusalem as the capital for the Jewish nation 3,000 years ago. And there is a bizarre appeal in this for fundamentalist Christians as well, who see any move declaring Jerusalem as a Jewish capital -- and the possible rebuilding of King David's temple -- as signs that events foretold in the Bible, including the return of the Messiah, are coming to pass. Is Dole Pandering to Jews, Christians? From the viewpoint of the State Department, Dole's proposed legislation couldn't come at a worse time. The long road to some kind of a peace process has been a rocky one, especially since the Six Day War in 1967. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) is under pressure to disengage from Israel from fundamentalist Islamic gangs like the Hamas. And Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin finds himself under attack as well from the right-wing Likud Party and other fundamentalist groups critical of any negotiations with the PLO. But the timing may be right for Sen. Dole who is running for president. In the Saturday, May 13, New York Post, columnist Richard Cohen noted "Every four years, the season for pandering to the Jewish community by politicians of both parties, usually coincides with the New York primary, but this year it has come early." Cohen went on to criticize Dole for "thinking more about San Diego and the Republican convention than Jerusalem and the peace process." Not surprisingly, Dole boosted his "Jerusalem Embassy Implementation Act of 1995" in a talk before the American- Israeli Public Affairs Committee. Although Jews in that audience applauded Dole's bill, even the Israeli government is cool to it. While it would like to see the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem, doing so now raises concerns over the immediate consequences. Cohen also noted that the Likud Party leaders "urged Dole and others to introduce their bill," referring to the Implementation Act. The Dole bill also undercuts efforts by secular Israelis and Palestinians to bridge the gap between their peoples and construct non-religious institutions as the basis of a lasting peace. Most Palestinians still support the relatively-separationist vision of the moderate PLO, and reject Muslim fundamentalism. A growing number of Israelis, particularly youth, oppose their own restrictive and superstitious theocracy, and worry about groups such as the Likud Party and other right-wing movements. Neither of these secular elements is getting any help from Senator Dole. And there is a Christian agenda at work here as well. Both Dole and Republican Senator Phil Gramm of Texas are in a race for the GOP presidential nomination. Both are running hard to establish their religious (specifically Christian) fundamentalist credentials. Each has been speaking to conservative Christian groups for the past several weeks, including Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Both need support from Jewish and Christian groups, but especially the latter. (More progressive, secular "Jews" seem to back Senator Arlen Specter, who is rapidly establishing himself as a civil libertarian and state/church separationist -- and an alternative to the Dole/Gramm axis in the GOP). Christian fundamentalists since the late 1970s have been ardent supporters of the Israeli state for a number of reasons. Israel was seen as a U.S. ally and bastion in the Mid East against Communism -- a perception dating back to the 1950s when Egypt's General Nasser tried to form a Pan-Arab movement, and gradually drifted into a loose working alliance with the Soviet Union. The defeat by Israel of combined Arab armies using Soviet weaponry confirmed this perception in the minds of many. But concern for Jews or Israelis as a people, per se, is not the main reason for Christian evangelical interest in that area. Certain Christians see Jews as "chosen" people, but only in a certain way: the consolidation of the Jewish state in the modern era, the use of Jerusalem as its capitol, and finally the rebuilding of the Temple are all crucial signs in Christian eschatology. Groups in the United States such as the Washington, D.C based "Christian Embassy" maintain 'round-the-clock prayer vigils on behalf of the rebuilding of the Temple. The Israeli government itself is aware of the strange alliance between some fundamentalist Jews and U.S. Christians who actually stockpile materials for such a project and have plans for its rapid implementation. Having the "politically correct" line on issues such as Israel's role in the return of the Christian messiah only shores up the social conservative perception of Robert Dole, candidate. In his AIPAC talk last week, Dole mentioned that 1996 will mark "the 3,000th anniversary of King David's establishment of Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel" -- a remark laden with political and theological implications. Richard Cohen also noted that Dole himself once opposed relocating the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv. "Dole acknowledged that in his speech", said Cohen. "He went on to say, however, that much has changed since the old days. . . . What he did not mention is the critical change . . . in his own status. He is now a Presidential candidate." Should Jerusalem be the Israeli capital? That assumes that the individuals calling themselves "Jews" -- specifically "Israeli Jews" -- have some sort of magical claim to a piece of desert real estate inhabited thousands of years ago by people from whom they insist they descended. Arabs, Jews and Christians have battled over the "holy city" for centuries. And today, officials in Jerusalem continue to seize land; in fact, they now want to seize hundreds of acres beyond the 134 acres whose planned confiscation was announced two weeks ago. Secular Institutions the Only Clear, Lasting Answer So long as politics in the Middle East (and elsewhere) is driven by religious doctrines, there may well be no meaningful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma -- or, for that matter, to Israel's precarious relations with a variety of authoritarian, semi-feudal Arab states. There are indications, however, that many young people, workers and intellectuals on both sides of the dividing line -- Arab and "Jew" -- seek a solution different from that of religious fundamentalism. In the meantime, Dole's "Jerusalem Embassy Implementation Act of 1995" is designed more to affect voters at home than people thousands of miles away who are desperately seeking peace. *************** (A Brief Note on Terminology) Some experts have insisted that those individuals identified as "Palestinians" are not "Arabs," and that this latter group does not include "Egyptians." I use the term "Palestinian" to refer to those who have lived in that area for several generations; their problems are unique to them, and in many respects the Palestinians really have little in common with the reactionary Arab satraps and dictatorships which claim to support them. A similar problem exists in the use of the term "Jew." Is it a race? A culture? A religion? I don't promise to have an answer to that; but there are Israeli's who some might describe as "Jews" who are secularists and oppose many of that government's actions and internal policies. I hope that the numbers of "Palestinians" and Israelis ("Jews") struggling for separation of government and religion, and the establishment of secular institutions, continues to grow. It is with them that the best chances for peace and progress in that troubled part of the world will someday be found. THEISTWATCH SHORT-SHOTS On Thursday, May 11, Iranian television broadcast the 1979 movie "Running" starring Michael Douglas. But seventy minutes into the film, it was suddenly replaced with a dead screen, followed by nature shots accompanied by violin music. An exciting program about polio vaccinations came on after that, and finally an announcer who declared: "Good evening, dear compatriots, we regret we are unable to proceed with our feature film due to a problem in broadcasting it." What happened? Seems that "Running" featured people doing just that, but they happened to be wearing shorts and sleeveless tops and some of the runners were female. Turns out that exposed female limbs are against Islamic fundamentalist mores, which explains the notorious "wearing of the veil." Don't look for "Deadly Intentions" on Iranian TV anytime soon. *************** A recent article in Harper's (3/95) titled "Reactionary Chic" lists a disturbing quote by popular conservative- religionist Cal Thomas whose column appears in hundreds of newspapers throughout the country. Says Thomas: "If we will not be constrained from within by the power of God, we must be constrained from without by the power of the State, acting as God's agent." 'nuff said. *************** In the entire Middle East, only two countries are known to permit M-TV on the airwaves Iraq and Israel. What does that say about politics in that part of the world, Butthead? *************** An attempt at Atheist humor: What do you get when you cross an Atheist with a Jehovah's Witness? 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