Subject: [Atheist] AANEWS for July 18, 1996 Date: Thu, 18 Jul 1996 11:00:11 -0700 nn nn AA
Subject: [Atheist] AANEWS for July 18, 1996
Date: Thu, 18 Jul 1996 11:00:11 -0700
Reply-To: firstname.lastname@example.org, AMERICAN.ATHEISTS@listserv.direct.net
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"
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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