December 2003 Issue #105
Religious Right Agenda In Congress
Days after the Massachusetts ruling that banning gay marriages violates the state’s constitution, Sen. Wayne Allard introduced the “Federal Marriage Amendment” in the Senate (S.J.RES.26). It is identical to the one introduced in the House earlier this year (H.J. Res. 56), which has 107 cosponsors. The amendment states, “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the Constitution of any State, nor State or Federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups.” Opponents charge that this would be the first constitutional amendment in our nation’s history to restrict the civil rights of a targeted group.
After the Senate failed to secure approval of a vouchers plan for D.C. in the D.C. funding bill, Republican congressional leaders included one in an omnibus spending bill that combined 7 separate appropriations bills. The House approved the omnibus bill. A Senate vote is scheduled when the Senate reconvenes on January 20. The voucher plan is a five-year pilot program that would give grants of up to $7,500 a year to at least 1,700 low-income DC children to attend private and parochial schools.
At least four bills have been introduced seeking to limit the jurisdiction of federal courts over religious expression on government property. The Safeguarding Our Religious Liberties Act (H.R. 3190) and Religious Liberties Restoration Act (S. 1558) are identical. They declare that the powers to display the Ten Commandments, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and to recite the national motto on or within property owned or administered by states or their political subdivisions are among those powers reserved to the states, and they except these powers from the jurisdiction of federal courts below the Supreme Court. The Ten Commandments Defense Act of 2003 (H.R. 2045) is similar but narrower; it applies to the display of Ten Commandments and the expression of religious faith by individuals on or within state property. The Pledge Protection Act of 2003 (H.R. 2028) would deny jurisdiction to any court established by an Act of Congress to hear or determine any claim that the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance violates the First Amendment. The last bill is the only one with a sizable number of cosponsors --- 222, including Brady, Carter, Culberson, DeLay, Green, and Paul.
Appeals Court: Ten Commandments Can Stay On Texas Capitol Grounds
The 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has unanimously affirmed a lower court’s ruling that a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol does not violate the First Amendment. The man who brought the suit contended that a reasonable viewer would perceive the display as a state advancement and endorsement of the Jewish & Christian faiths.
Both courts agreed with the state that the monument has a secular purpose. The court found that the legislature’s purpose in authorizing the monument’s erection by a private organization was to recognize and commend that group for its efforts to combat juvenile delinquency. The court held further, “The Ten Commandments Monument is part of a display of seventeen monuments, all located on grounds registered as a historical landmark, and it is carefully located between the Supreme Court Building and the Capitol Building housing the legislative and executive branches of government. We are not persuaded that a reasonable viewer touring the Capitol and its grounds, informed of its history and its placement, would conclude that the State is endorsing the religious rather than the secular message of the Decalogue.” The court also found noteworthy the lack of previous complaints about the monument since it was erected in 1961. The complainant says he will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to decide the case.
Court Decisions Spur Action
Religious right groups are using the Massachusetts decision on gay marriages and the rulings against Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore to galvanize their supporters. (Alabama’s Court of the Judiciary voted unanimously to remove Moore from office for defying a federal judge’s order to remove his Ten Commandments monument from the state’s judicial building.) Various groups have announced petition drives to support the Federal Marriage Amendment, support the public display of the Ten Commandments, or limit the jurisdiction of federal courts over religious matters.
The Christian Coalition, asserting, “We MUST take a stand for America's Christian heritage,” launched a “national movement to allow Christ back into our culture and into the public square.” It aims to gather 1 million signatures on a petition supporting efforts by Members of Congress to “Take America Back from a liberal and tyrannical federal judiciary.”
Vision America, a national group based in Houston, announced a "Save the Ten Commandments" petition drive. Its petition "seeks to restore our Judeo-Christian heritage, check the secularist onslaught, defend public display of the Ten Commandments and other religious symbols, oppose judicial tyranny, and support the confirmation of federal judges committed to...judicial restraint." The first group of signers includes national religious right leaders.
"It is a blessing in disguise," the Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, said of the Massachusetts decision. "It is going to awaken a lot of people who have never participated in any form of activism." Donald Wildmon, chairman of the American Family Association, said it had energized conservative activists to a degree not seen since 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision. "This is probably the best thing that could have happened," Wildmon said. "Every major pro-family group in the country is cooperating with each other now."
Ironically, the religious right complain that federal courts have usurped states’ powers regarding religious expression and they insist that issues such as whether to display the Ten Commandments are best left to the states. At the same time, they advocate an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriages in every state.
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