Bad Bills On The Hill: Church-State Wall Under Fire In New Congress

If you thought that changes in Congress would mean a near cessation of attempts to weaken the principle of church-state separation, you should think again.

Since the new Congress convened earlier this month, bills have been introduced that would mandate public school prayer, allow houses of worship to endorse political candidates and stifle the federal courts' ability to resolve disputes over church and state.

The so-called "We the People Act," introduced by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), claims that the U.S. Supreme Court and the lower federal courts have made decisions on "religious liberty, sexual orientation, family relations, education, and abortion" that have "wrested from State and local governments" the final say over these issues.

H.R. 300's impetus is clearly to gut the ability of federal courts to overturn legislation or government actions that violate church-state separation and other constitutional protections. The measure states that all federal courts, including the Supreme Court, "shall not adjudicate" cases involving religious liberty and other social issues.

If it were to pass and be signed into law, citizens would not, for example, be able to seek a court order to stop a public school teacher from leading students in prayer or a city council deciding to adorn all public buildings with religious symbols and statements.

Another equally egregious bill in the 110th Congress is one that proposes amending the U.S. Constitution to allow for organized prayer in the public schools. The measure has been championed for years by former Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), who retired last year to run for governor.

In mid-January, however, thanks to Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), H.R. Res. 13 was re-introduced. The proposed amendment allows public school officials to include prayer in "official ceremonies and meetings." If added to the Constitution, citizens would not have a First Amendment right to prevent the public schools from turning into religious academies.

We also must continue to contend with a bill long championed by Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) that would essentially permit houses of worship to act like political operations but retain the tax privileges of non-profits. That bill has never made it out of the House in previous years, but now it has finally been introduced in the Senate.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) introduced the euphemistically dubbed "Religious Freedom Act of 2007." S.178 would re-write federal tax law to treat religious non-profits a lot differently than non-religious ones by permitting religious groups to endorse politicians for public office but retain tax breaks. Secular non-profits would still be expected to remain non-political to retain their tax privileges.

These measures may not stand a chance of advancing in either chamber – at least, we hope they don't -- but they serve as reminders that a new Congress does not mean all is secure on the battleground to preserve the church-state wall.