Subject: [Atheist] AANEWS for July 18, 1996 Date: Thu, 18 Jul 1996 11:00:11 -0700 nn nn AA

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Subject: [Atheist] AANEWS for July 18, 1996 Date: Thu, 18 Jul 1996 11:00:11 -0700 From: Reply-To:, nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn nnnnnnnnnn AANEWS nnnnnnnnnn #97 uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu 7/18/96 In This Issue... * Atheists Want Input on Prayer Amendment * Distortions, Hearsay Used by Amendment Boosters * Competing Amendments Reflect Splits * Join AACHAT... * About This List... ATHEISTS SEEK TO TESTIFY BEFORE HOUSE COMMITTEE DURING RELIGIOUS EQUALITY HEARINGS American Atheists President Ellen Johnson announced last night that the organization wants its day on Capitol Hill when a House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee begins another round of hearings next Tuesday on a version of the Religious Equality Amendment. That legislation -- the so-called "Hyde version" would effectively legitimize student-led or student initiated prayer in public schools. Numerous court rulings have found that the practice is unconstitutional, coercive, and violates the rights of students who do not wish to pray. In a press release sent out to the media today, Johnson said that the Religious Equality Amendment was "just another ruse to sneak prayer back into schools." She also added that by pushing for a floor-vote on the measure, groups such as the Christian Coalition would have the vote on record for inclusion in the millions of "voter guides" they distribute to churches and religious groups in time for the November election. Ms. Johnson told aanews that Atheists are often excluded from such hearings, which often end up being monopolized by "respectable" spokespersons, often clergy. "They forget that there are 25,000,000 Atheists and other non-believers in the country, and that's a number which is larger than most religious denominations." She also added that Atheist children and parents would be affected by the proposed Amendment, not just "minority" religious members. Text of AMERICAN ATHEISTS Press Relese to the Media AMERICAN ATHEISTS announced today that it is contacting representatives on both sides of the aisle on the House Judiciary Committee to demand that an officer of the group be given a chance to air views concerning the Hyde-Religious Equality Amendment. Hearings on the proposed legislation which would amend the constitution to legitimize "student-led" prayer in public schools are scheduled for this coming Tuesday, July 23. Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists, stated: "The Hyde version of the Religious Equality Amendment was just another ruse to sneak prayer back into schools. In addition, by trying to bring the measure up for a vote in Congress, prayer backers were trying to compile a hit list for use in the November elections. The Christian Coalition plans to distribute millions of voters guides and will use school prayer as another litmus test for public office." Ms. Johnson called upon the House Judiciary Committee which is holding the hearings to not discriminate against Atheists. "It is only appropriate that the movement which sprung from the battle against prayer recitation in schools over thirty years ago should once again be given the opportunity to pareticipate in this important debate." Johnson was referring to the U.S. Supreme Court case of MURRAY vs. CURLETT which helped to end prayer and bible recitation in public schools, and was initiated by Madalyn Murray, the founder of American Atheists. "It is the epitome of intolerance that we are being excluded," Johnson said. ********* DISTORTIONS, HEARSAY SUPPORT MANY AMENDMENT CLAIMS By many accounts, school prayer has become a major issue in America's public schools. Some students, encouraged by churches, religious organizations and legal groups like Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, are challenging what they insist is a climate of persecution which prevents them from exercising inherent rights. They charge that schools and educational authorities are "biased" against religion, and often violent students' right to religious exercise; and they cite horrific examples, including alleged instances where bibles are confiscated, or students trying to pray are hardcuffed and taken away in paddy wagons. Indeed, the school prayer fight has become linked to a larger, "religious liberties" issue. According to groups like the Rutherford Institute and the Christian Coalition, restrictions on prayer in public schools are simply part of a wider trend which exhibits "official hostility" and "discrimination against people of faith." Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network which reaches tens of millions of viewers, and his popular "700 Club" program echo the theme that "religion is under attack in America." One segment on the daily news and talk program graphically portrayed that claim. The piece opens with a team of SWAT-commandos approaching a target, brandishing weapons and taking positions. "Remember, take no prisoners!" says one of the agents. The next shot depicts a circle of about a dozen people gathered around a cone of light from an overhead lamp; the door is suddenly kicked in, the SWAT teams begins spraying the room with fire, people go down. One person makes it to a stairway and is pursued by the commandos to the sound of gunshots and the order, "Take no prisoners! No prisoners!." The lone escapee reaches the roof, only to be dropped by a quick burst of automatic weapons fire. Something drops to the ground; it is a Bible. The fade-out is quickly replaced by the avuncular Robertson, who asks: "Could this happen some day in America? Some people think that's the direction the country is heading..." Presumably, any restrictions on prayer in public schools or other government venues on behalf of state-church separation constitute a de factor and de jure trend toward the grisly scene artfully portrayed by actors on the Christian Broadcasting Network. But just as Robertson's one-minute vignette is a distortion of reality, so are many of the claims made by supporters of the Religious Equality Amendment who insist that the legislation is needed to "protect" religious rights. Some of the anecdotal stories which presumably show the hostility of school authorities to "people of faith" are constantly recycled within church literature, commentary on Christian television and radio shows, or from pulpits. Were the stories true, they would surely be proof that school officials were acting improperly and indeed violating basic rights. The problem, though, is that the stories are often outright fabrications or gross distortions of facts. On September 15, 1995, the NBC Nightly News included a piece about the school prayer issue as part of its "News In Depth" segment. It began with a report on the "See you at the pole" day which is organized by religious groups throughout the country; it encourages students to gather outside schools around the flagpole, and organizers like to stress that the event is entirely voluntary. After a sound-bite from Jay Sekulow, director of the American Center for Law and Justice which often litigates on behalf of religious believers, reporter Bob Faw discussed specific cases: FAW: "And the Christian Coalition insists students are persecuted all the time for their religious beliefs. Listen to Ralph Reed describe a 15-year-old student in Metropolis, Illinois." Mr. RALPH REED (Christian Coalition): "...who was escorted into a police paddy wagon, handcuffed, and threatened with mace because she tried to lead a prayer around the school's flagpole." FAW: "Outrageous? Indeed. But visit tiny Metropolis, talk to local officials, and you'll hear Ralph Reed's horror story did not happen." Mr. DON SMITH (School Superintendent): "There was no paddy wagon. There was a police car. There were no handcuff's used. And there wasn't no mace (sic). The so-called Christian Coalition has, in essence, misrepresented the facts." Another case involved a student named Joshua Burton who is suiging the Orlando, Florida school board alleging that when he was quietly reading his Bible before official class hours, teachers confiscated it and humiliated the ten-year-old student. FAW: "As for Joshua, the local school board attorney says his allegations were untrue, that Joshua was disruptive; and his principal adds..." Ms. SYLVIA BOYD (Principal): "Students are allowed to bring anything that they wish to read." FAW: "Still, in an overheated environment, Joshua has become the poster child of a movement which wants a prayer amendment in The Constitution to protect students from school administrators." There are other alleged example cited by Religious Equality Amendment supporters, a number of which were used by Jay Sekulow in a December, 1995 article which appeared in the American Bar Association Journal under the title "Defenders of the Faith." Sekulow's piece prompted a response by three attorneys from Seattle who investigated the cases mentioned, and found troubling discrepencies in the stories. Among them: * "In Arkansas, a fifth grader was ordered by a teacher to turn his T-shirt inside-out to hide the Bible verse on it." The attorney's noted, in a subsequent letter to the ABA Journal: "According to Susan Engle of Liberty Counsel, a fifth-grade girl in Arkansas wore a shirt to school with a picture of a garbage can and the words 'It's no place for a baby' and 'Stop Abortion' on the front. The back said 'God made woman with a womb, not a tomb' and 'It's a child, not a choice." Her teacher asked her to turn the shirt inside-out. She told her parents and they called the Liberty Counsel. Mat Staver told her to wear the shirt again and say that she had a constitutional right to do so. She did, and that was the end of the matter." (The Seattle attorneys note that these incidents "would be more properly described as raising issues of students' freedom of speech rather than freedom of religion.") * "It appears to us that the 'outrageous cases' described in 'Defenders of the Faith' are not 'cases,' are not particularly 'outrageous,' and do not really involve religious freedom. It would have been more accurate to say they are anecdotes which, when repeated, tend to cause people to believe that isolated and inaccurately reported incidents reflect typical school policies, tend to confuse people about the law regarding religion in the schools, and tend to lead people to conclude that the Supreme Court's current interpretations of the First Amendment should therefore be changed..." ****************** DIFFERENT AMENDMENT VERSIONS SHOW RELIGIOUS SPLIT There are two versions of a proposed Religious Equality Amendment moving through congress at the present time, a fact which reflects not only organizational rivalries but the difficulty in crafting so controversial and offensive a piece of invasive legislation. Both were introduced in November, 1995. One Amendment (H.J. Res 121) is sponsored by Rep. Henry Hude (R.Ill.) and originally had the support of James Dobson's Focus on the Family, the Southern Baptist Convention, Christian Legal Society and the National Association of Evangelicals." The original wording required government to award comparable tax benefits to schools and other religious institutions whenever secular projects received public funds. It would eviscerate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by permitting student-led or student-initiated prayer. Another version was crafted by Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Oklahoma) and enjoys the support of groups like Concerned Women for America, American Family Association and the Christian Action Network. In February, 1996, American Atheists learned that the task of writing the Amendment had been doled-out to Istook by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had promised groups like the Christian Coalition that a prayer amendment would be ready for congressional action in time for July 4. One early opponent of the Hyde amendment was evangelist William J. Murray, who along with his mother Madalyn Murray O'Hair was a plaintiff in the suit which challenged prayer and bible recitation in public schools. According to Church & State Magazine (March 1996), Murray considered Hyde's version to be "ambiguous and meaningless." The current Hyde amendment which will be the focus of hearings next Tuesday, July 23, appears to be a compromise on the two versions. According to the Washington Times, Rep. Istook insists that the measure "is not explicit," and adds: "It moves us closer, but unless you give clear, explicit permission for prayer in schools, it takes us no further in the courts." The Hyde amendment is now "on the fast track," according to legislation watchers. The Washington Post noted that: "Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Representative Dick Armey of Texas, the majority leader, have sent out word that the prayer amendment is a priority." "Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, said that as long as the measure was voted on by early September, his organization could include the results of how each member voted in the 45 million voter guides that it plans to mail to 100,000 churches in October." ********************* Are you a member of American Atheists? If you're interested in our organization, just send e-mail to:, and include your name and postal address in the message body. If you are already a member, you might wish to participate in our moderated on-line discussion group, AACHAT. We discuss Atheism, state-church separation, religion, science, civil liberties, AA activities and related issues. To participate, contact the moderator, Margie Wait at: Include your name and postal address. ******* AANEWS is a free service of American Atheists, a nationwide movement founded by Madalyn Murray O'Hair for the advancement of Atheism, and the total, absolute separation of government and religion. 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