Conservatives Seek Support For God Talk In Public Life

By Miriam Colton

Published April 02, 2004, issue of April 02, 2004.
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Congressional conservatives are struggling to build support for a new bill that would limit the ability of judges to prohibit government acknowledgment of God.

Known as “The Constitution Restoration Act of 2004,” the bill would prevent federal courts from ruling on issues such as the legality of the national motto “In God We Trust” or the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. The bill was introduced in February by two Alabama Republicans, Rep. Robert Aderholt and Senator Richard Shelby, and has the support of Roy Moore, the former chief justice of Alabama, who lost his job after defying a federal order directing him to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the rotunda of the state courthouse.

Critics note that, aside from raising questions about the separation of powers and the church-state wall, the bill undermines the notion of federal supremacy over state courts and declares that state courts are no longer bound by Supreme Court rulings dealing with government acknowledgement of God. The bill is opposed by several important Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress, although few of the organizations believe the legislation will ever be enacted.

“I have to assume — though we’ll obviously watch the bill — that Congress is more sensible than to enact such revolutionary legislation,” said Marc Stern, general counsel of AJCongress.

The bill has received the support of conservative groups, including the American Family Association, a national organization that has been one of the most active proponents of the federal marriage amendment, which would limit marriage to a man and woman.

“In light of today’s decisions, which are becoming less and less internally logical and less consistent with the founders’ original intent, we’ve reached a point when it’s appropriate to rein in the courts,” said Steve Crampton, a chief counsel for the Mississippi-based family association. “Congress rarely acts on its own initiative, but in this case I think there is a building momentum among the people, and Congress is taking stock.”

But supporters of the bill appear to be failing in their efforts to line up Republican lawmakers behind the bill; the House version has only 14 co-sponsors. It is not even clear if the measure will receive consideration by the House or Senate judiciary committees, let alone make it to the floor for a vote.

“This is kind of a brand-new idea, so it’s very early in the process as far as people having a chance to understand what the bill will do,” said Jeff Lungren, spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee. “I don’t have any guidance on what will happen with it.” To date, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the Republican chairman of the committee, has not joined in co-sponsoring the bill, but has not ruled out the option, Lungren said.

Shelbey’s press secretary, Virginia Davis, said that the senator is currently drafting a so-called “Dear Colleague” letter to fellow lawmakers explaining the details of the bill and encouraging them to support it. “Senator Shelby is confident,” Davis said, “that senators from both sides of the aisle will agree that this legislation is important and will become co-sponsors.”

Supporters say that the bill is rooted in Article Three of the Constitution, which empowers Congress to regulate the judicial branch, and that it is an attempt to head off what they characterize as the liberal judicial activism of today’s courts.

The bill claims that acknowledgment of God lies at the heart of the national identity and was never intended to be prohibited by the First Amendment clause banning the federal establishment of religion. According to this argument, cases brought against federal, state or local governments for acknowledging God should be dealt with exclusively by state courts. Supporters of the bill claim that, by curtailing federal jurisdiction, the measure simply restores a power to the states that had been unlawfully usurped.

In response, Stern of AJCongress said “the fundamental flaw” with the bill is that it attempts to hand the South an after-the-fact victory in the Civil War, which was fought over the states’ right to nullify federal laws.

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