Statement of Carole Shields, President, People For The American Way, Opposing the Istook Amendment


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Congress should reject the Istook Amendment for two very good reasons. There’s no need for it. And it would actually diminish Americans’ religious liberty.

Every day in public schools in every state of the union, students voluntarily exercise their constitutional right to express their religious faith. They pray silently. They say grace over lunch. They talk about their faith with their friends. They write about their religion in reports. They learn about the impact of religion in history, literature, art, and other classes. They set up religious clubs and go to meetings during club periods or after school.

Students’ religious freedom is protected by the First Amendment and has been upheld by the courts – time and again.

But listening to Congressman Istook and the leaders of the Religious Right, you’d never know it. They want you to believe that religion has been driven out of the public schools.

They tell horror stories – about a judge in Alabama who expelled 70 children from school for praying. About a girl in Tennessee who got a zero on a research paper just because she chose to write about Jesus Christ – and a judge who upheld her failing grade. If they were true – these stories would be shocking.

The trouble is – the stories just aren’t true. That Alabama judge didn’t expel even one student for praying. That girl in Tennessee earned her bad grade by ignoring the teacher’s assignment.

The fact is – Congressman Istook and the Religious Right don’t tell the truth about religion in the schools – because the truth doesn’t fit their purposes. They want people to think that religion has been banned from the schools – because they want us to agree to give government the power to force their religion on all of our children. They’re not satisfied with schools where our children are free to pray or to believe according to their own faith – as they do now. They want school officials to pick and choose for our children and force religious observances into the school day.

The Congressmen who are supporting this amendment may have an even more cynical reason. They may think it will look good on those scorecards the Religious Right publishes around election time – and they want to fool voters into thinking that they took a stand to protect our children’s religious freedom.

The Istook Amendment is a bad idea for the schools – and for the churches. That’s why you see so many church leaders in this room. Even Religious Right leaders like Mide Farris, Steve McFarland, Alabama Circuit Judge Roy Moore have even come out against it.

The simple fact is that America doesn’t need Istook’s religious freedom amendment – because we already have the First Amendment – and it works. It’s simple, it’s clear, and it has enabled religion to flourish here more than anywhere else on earth. It gives us and our children the freedom to observe and follow our own faith and conscience as we see fit – free of any government direction, interference, or suggestion.

That’s the way it should stay.