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The Religious Freedom Amendment:Threat To The First Amendment
Larry Frankel, June 1, 1997 -- Once again the divisive issue of school prayer is being raised in the halls of Congress. Once again, the ACLU stands ready to strongly oppose yet another effort to undermine the First Amendment and religious liberty.
    On May 8, 1997, Representative Ernest Istook, from Oklahoma, introduced his so-called "Religious Freedom Amendment." This proposal would specifically overturn decades of Supreme Court rulings and allow for organized prayer in our public schools.
    Representative Istook's Amendment, reads as follows: To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: The people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. The government shall not require any person to join in prayer or other religious activities, initiate or designate school prayers, discriminate against any religion or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion.
    The ACLU does not believe that the United States Constitution needs to be amended to promote religious freedom. In fact, we have learned from more than 200 years of experience, that this country already has a great tool for promoting religious freedom -- the First Amendment as it is was drafted by the founders of this country. On the day that the Istook amendment was introduced, Diann Rust-Tierney of our Washington Office observed:
    Americans enjoy a degree of religious freedom unknown in most of the rest of the world, and they take full advantage of it. The United States is home to more than 1,500 different religious bodies and 360,000 churches, synagogues and mosques... In truth, this proposed amendment is about permitting religious majorities to impose their beliefs and practices on minorities by using the public school as a proselytizing platform.
    Many of the members of Pennsylvania's Congressional delegation are inclined to support this proposed amendment. We recognize that we have our work cut out for us if we want to change some minds and votes in Congress.
    Therefore, we need your help over the next few weeks and months. We hope to put together diverse coalitions in every part of the state so that we can demonstrate to our legislators the breadth of opposition to this proposal. We must send a consistent message -- we cherish our religious freedom and we don't want any tinkering with the First Amendment.

Here are ways you can help:

1. Personally communicate, by phone, letter, fax or E-mail, with your member of Congress and both of our Senators;

2. Urge your friends, neighbors and coworkers to also communicate their views to our elected officials in Washington;

3. Write letters to your local newspaper and call in to your local talk shows. We really need you to make sure that our view is out there in the arena of public opinion;

4. Be in touch with other groups in your area who might oppose this amendment. We can use your help in identifying our allies.

5. Finally, do not hesitate to contact us in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh to let us know what you are doing and how we can help you.

Larry Frankel is Executive Director of Pennsylvania ACLU, and  PAD Advisory Committee Member.