Twenty years ago this week, something really great happened: We saved separation of church and state from Newt Gingrich!
To set the stage, come with me now back to Oct. 5, 1994. I have no idea what you were doing that day, but I can tell you where I was: sitting in an auditorium at the Heritage Foundation listening to Gingrich talk about how much the nation needed to add a school prayer amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The acerbic Gingrich, who at the time was Republican minority whip in the House of Representatives, blasted the Supreme Court for its 1963 decision in Abington Township School District v. Schempp, which struck down coercive programs of school-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in public schools.
“The Supreme Court decision of 1963 was bad law, bad history and bad culture,” he carped. “It was just wrong. It was one of those occasions where the court just did the wrong thing. We ought to just say that. And if the court doesn’t want to reverse itself, then we have an obligation to pass a constitutional amendment to instruct the court on its error.”
President Bill Clinton had been struggling in the early years of his first term, and the Republicans were poised to reap a “red wave” in the upcoming mid-term elections. Many political observers interpreted Gingrich’s speech as a sop to fire up the GOP’s Religious Right wing. Sure enough, a month later the Republicans took control of the House, and in January 1995 Gingrich became Speaker of the House.
Once in power, Gingrich decided he had better things to do and handed the school prayer amendment project off to U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.). Istook turned to lawyers with several Religious Right groups and asked them to draft the language.
But the Religious Right got greedy. Its attorneys decided to formulate a much broader amendment, one that would topple the church-state wall. They spent a few years arguing among themselves and then emerged with a monstrosity that would have not only authorized official school prayer but also permitted government to display sectarian symbols and extended taxpayer funding to religious schools and other institutions.
Of course they called it the “Religious Freedom Amendment.” The wildly inaccurate name led me to tell one reporter, “We don’t need a ‘Religious Freedom Amendment’ because we already have one. It’s called the First Amendment.”
Americans United played a key role in forming a broad coalition to oppose what we called the Istook Amendment. There was no way we were going to concede that this thing had anything to do with religious freedom. Plus, naming it for Istook allowed us to create clever buttons reading, “Istook Is Mistook.” (I still have mine.)
After much maneuvering, the amendment, H.J. Res. 78, reached the House floor on June 4, 1998. Debate on the proposal lasted more than six hours and featured the usual far-right bromides about school prayer. At one point, Istook asserted, “As prayer has gone out of schools, guns, knives and gangs have come in.”
Istook's feeble rhetoric was no match for what our champions unleashed. U.S. Reps. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), Chet Edwards (D-Texas), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y) and Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.) demolished the amendment on the House floor. At one point, Scott asked a pointed question: “How safer will our schools be when children begin fighting over which prayers will be said or which religious expressions should or should not take place before each class day?”
It takes a two-thirds vote to pass a constitutional amendment, and when the numbers were tallied, the Istook Amendment fell way short. Disturbingly, it garnered a simple majority in the final vote of 224-203 – but that was 61 votes shy of the number needed for passage.
We all breathed a huge sigh of relief but couldn’t help but agree with Edwards who observed after the vote, “I’m ecstatic that we have preserved the Bill of Rights and its protection of religious freedom. But I cannot celebrate the fact that a majority of House members were willing to vote against the first 16 words of the Bill of Rights.”
In the days following the vote, angry Religious Right leaders vowed to prod their allies in Congress to introduce the Istook Amendment again. Istook did reintroduce it in 1999, 2001 and 2003, but those efforts came to naught. The amendment never received another vote, and Istook retired from the House in 2006.
Americans United was crucial to defeating the Istook Amendment, and I’m proud of that. But I’m also aware that we can’t ever let our guard down. The forces that want to infuse public schools with religion (usually their own) are still out there, as the recent flap over “Project Blitz” reminds us. Ensuring that public schools welcome students of all religions and none has been a core part of AU’s mission since day one, and you count on us to remain vigilant.
P.S. If you want to learn more about the proper role of religion in public schools, check out this AU publication. And for more on the history of this contentious issue, take a look at this article I wrote last year for Education Law & Policy Review.