Istook Set to Unveil Religion Amendment: Changes to Its Wording Win Converts

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Sponsors of a religious-liberty amendment to the Constitution say support is snowballing, with the backing of more than 100 lawmakers and once-reluctant religious bodies that wanted changes in the bill's language.

Rep. Ernest Istook, Oklahoma Republican and chief sponsor of the bill, will introduce it in the House today. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, has stated interest in holding hearings by this summer.

But the main accomplishment, Mr. Istook said, is to unite all the pro-amendment groups around language upon which they can agree.

"I am delighted that the National Association of Evangelicals has endorsed the religious-freedom amendment," Mr. Istook said in a recent statement. "This is yet another addition to a long list of supporters."

A week before the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) gave its backing, the Southern Baptist Convention endorsed the measure. Both groups had rejected language in a 51-word amendment unveiled in late March.

The new amendment, now at 71 words, clarifies that all the rights being protected are those of the "people," whereas some critics thought the earlier wording gave government the right to "acknowledge" one religion or another.

The new language also drops the term "acknowledge" and substitutes "recognize," as in: "the people's right to prayer and to recognize their religious belief."

To meet concerns of the NAE, the idea of "equal access" was added. The term has become a key legal principle since Congress passed the 1994 Equal Access Act, which allows student religious clubs the same rights as other clubs on campus. The principle was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Both the Southern Baptists and the NAE were concerned about putting a "majoritarian" principle in the Constitution, which would allow religious majorities to curtail the freedoms of minorities. "It is significant that the NAE wants to assure that all Americans have equal access to express their belief, and not be disqualified from equal treatment on account of religion," Mr. Istook said.

With the initial unveiling of the amendment in late March, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other GOP leaders supported the initiative, saying the detailed language could be ironed out by experts in legislative committee. …