Ten years ago tomorrow, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on a so-called "Religious Freedom Amendment" sponsored by former Rep. Ernest "Jim" Istook of Oklahoma.
I remember the vote well. Americans United and its allies had mobilized a broad umbrella organization, the Coalition to Preserve Religious Liberty, to oppose Istook's dangerous scheme. We worked on the issue for months.
The amendment's name came right out of George Orwell. It wasn't really about religious freedom. Istook's proposal would have allowed government to sponsor prayer in public schools, permitted the display of religious iconography in public buildings and guaranteed religious groups access to tax funds. Istook basically sought to erase church-state separation from the First Amendment.
It took a lot of hard work, but we defeated the "Istook Amendment" on June 4, 1998. It garnered a simple majority, 224-203, but fell 61 votes short of the two-thirds required to pass a constitutional amendment.
Istook continued to promote the amendment, but it never came up for a vote again. Istook left Congress in 2006 and ran for governor of Oklahoma but was soundly defeated. I still think about him because on occasion I see him, trudging along Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, the same route I take from the D.C. Metro to AU's office. The only difference is that Istook turns into the headquarters of the Heritage Foundation, where he now works.
Today Istook's name popped up in Politico, a Washington publication that covers politics. The newspaper reported that Istook's former chief of staff, John C. Albaugh, has pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the House. It's more fallout from the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal – an unfortunate sequence of events that ensnared several Religious Right leaders.
Istook was contacted by federal investigators about his former aide's activities. Istook has not been charged with any crime, but some embarrassing revelations have come forth. Here's my favorite: Documents have come to light discussing how in 2003, Albaugh requested that Istook call Abramoff and thank him for hosting a fund-raiser at a luxury box in Washington's FedEx Field, home of the Redskins football team.
During the call, Istook asked Abramoff about an upcoming transportation bill, wondering what Abramoff's clients wanted to see in that legislation.
Abramoff was ecstatic. The lobbyist sent an e-mail to his staff, asserting that Istook "basically asked what we want in the transportation bill" and advising his lobbyists to "make sure we load up our entire Christmas tree."
So now we know why Istook was so adamant about that constitutional amendment – he wanted to see more Christmas trees on government property that he could load up with taxpayer-funded presents for his lobbyist buddies!
Seriously, it is extremely annoying to be lectured on morality and the need for more religion in public life by people who engage in actions that are, to say the least, ethically dubious.
During the congressional debate over Istook's amendment, I spent the day glued to C-SPAN watching the floor battle. I recall Istook saying, "As prayer has gone out of schools, guns, knives and gangs have come in."
Better yet, former Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) asserted that the "three R's" of public education had been replaced by "rape, rifles and Ritalin." Traficant was sure a dose of official prayer would help things out, but he hasn't been able to make that case lately: He was expelled from the House in 2002 after being indicted for taking bribes, filing false tax returns and racketeering. Traficant was found guilty and is currently incarcerated in a federal prison.
I don't know about you, but I'm not really interested in listening to guys like Istook and Traficant lecture me on the need for more religion and morals in public life. In light of these revelations, it rings rather hollow.