Religious Bigotry Rising In America

(The following is a floor speech delivered by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, September 29, 1999)

Mr. Speaker, America today is at a crossroads. Our people head into the 21st Century having witnessed remarkable events all across the globe. We have seen the rise and fall of tyranny—Nazism and communism—with Americans being instrumental in the destruction of both. We have seen technological and scientific developments unparalleled in history. America itself is more prosperous than it has been at any time in its existence. The United States is now recognized as the unchallenged superpower in the world.

But at the same time that our nation has seen so many achievements, we have to admit that there are some areas where we are not making the progress that we should. Tonight I regret to say that one area where we’re losing ground is our treatment of religious believers. We are witnessing a rising level of bigotry against people of faith, especially Christians.

Mr. Speaker, let me tell you about some of the most recent examples that I’ve seen. The first three followed after the tragic shootings in Littleton, Colorado, and Fort Worth, Texas.

After the memorial service for the families and victims of Littleton, Colorado, the May 1st issue of the Denver Post editorialized against what it called the “disenfranchising” nature of this memorial service. According to the editorial page writers, “While the service deftly satisfied the needs of fundamentalist Christians, it estranged too many others who came in search of healing” and due to the fact that the primary entertainment was by “Christian singers Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, and the key speech was by the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, it drove away a sizeable number of people who had come to mourn the deaths.

We urge state officials to learn from the error and plan future events to be inclusive, not divisive.” In other words, the editors of the Denver Post objected to the families and victims turning to their faith in this terrible time of grief.

According to the May 18th edition of the Washington Times, plans to create a memorial for the family and victims of the Columbine shootings at the Foothill Parks and Recreational District near the high school were scrapped after the “Freedom From Religion Foundation” threatened legal action.

The spokesman for the group said that the memorial would “make non-Christians feel unwelcome at that park.” The day after the tragic shooting in Fort Worth this month, the Washington Times reported that Attorney General Janet Reno was asked the next day whether she thought that the shootings had anything to do with hatred or religious bigotry. Janet Reno warned reporters that it was too early to characterize the Fort Worth shooting as a “hate crime.” This reticence was in stark contrast to other cases of bigotry. For instance, last year the Justice Department offered its resources to help prosecutors prove racial bias in another Texas case involving the dragging death of James Byrd within days of the tragic killing. It’s been two weeks since the shooting in Fort Worth, and we’re still waiting.

Mr. Speaker, there are still other examples. Whether we wish to admit it or not, Christians are now subject to ridicule, mistreatment, and bigotry—pure and simple.

The television show “Nothing Sacred” lived up to its billing by trying to develop storylines with ministers of the cloth engaging in immoral activity or finding ways to belittle people of faith altogether. According to the New York Post which ran in March of 1998, “Nothing Sacred” set an all-time low for viewership last year on a major network with 94% of the available market bypassing this program.

And Hollywood isn’t any better. Movies such as this summer’s release of “Stigmata” attack the Catholic Church, accusing it of being on a millennium-long crusade to stamp out the true teachings of Christ.

But, Mr. Speaker, there’s more evidence that our society, rather than protecting freedom of religion, is discouraging religious expression.

According to the Associated Press, the ACLU sued the city of Republic, Missouri, on behalf of Jean Webb, a Wiccan witch, to have its city seal altered to remove the fish symbol. The May 6th article stated that the ACLU planned to also argue that since the “symbol is often found in Christian establishments, not non-Christian ones, and that most of the people who wrote letters supporting the fish identified it as a Christian symbol,” the ACLU had plenty of evidence that the city’s support of keeping the fish symbol constituted an establishment of religion.

The Chicago Tribune reported that the ACLU this year sued the Chicago Public Schools because of its activities with the Boy Scouts of America. Why? The April 26th news story indicated that it was because the Boy Scout oath pledges that a good scout will obey God. By the ACLU’s reasoning, such an oath, because it mentions God, makes the Boy Scouts a religious organization which shouldn’t be allowed on school property.

USA Today ran a story last week announcing that the Augusta, Kansas, school board has revoked a policy that allowed students to lead classmates in prayer over the school intercom after the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the policy as unconstitutional.

On the May 21 broadcast of CNN’s “Crossfire,” Barry Lynn, the Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, went so far as to criticize the acclaim given to Cassie Bernall, the young girl who was shot at Columbine High because she wouldn’t renounce her faith. He said, “I think that what we’ve done here is to take this one victim, turned it into an example of martyrdom, and then used to it become the springboard for even more exploitation of this tragedy by people with a religious, political agenda.” Such insensitivity would have been denounced if said about John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, or even Rodney King.

The District of Columbia public school system was sued this summer for allowing a church to use an abandoned park as a parking lot in exchange for providing after-school services for neighborhood children. The September 17th story, as reported in the Washington Post, revealed that members of the Metropolitan Baptist Church have been parking about 300 cars on the field on Sundays for more than 10 years. Rev. Hicks agreed to cancel the contract rather than force the city to defend the suit. Rev. Hicks, pastor of the 5000 member Metropolitan Baptist Church of Washington, D.C., got my attention with his statement when announcing plans to terminate the contract, saying that “there has been a shift in culture.” He said, “We’ve reached the point where God no longer has a place in our communities.”

The Hagerstown Suns, a Single-A affiliate of the major-league Toronto Blue Jays, is being sued by the ACLU because they ran a promotion for the past six years that reduced ticket prices on Sundays for anybody coming to the stadium with a church bulletin. According to the Baltimore Sun in their June 29th edition, the ACLU believes this discount is a form of discrimination against the non-religious.

Jeff Jacoby complains in his August 19th column in the Boston Globe of a blatant case of anti-religious bias involving an inner city Boston church. On July 15, the city of Boston sent a letter to Mason Cathedral, warning the church center (which receives taxpayers’ subsidies to help wayward youth) not to involve its teenage counselors in “religious activities including but not limited to the following: praying, reading Bible stories, drawing Bible pictures, and cleaning in the areas of the church where there are religious symbols. All religious activities must cease immediately.” Jeff Jacoby interviewed the pastor. “For five years they’ve been saying I do good work,” says the Rev. Thomas Cross. “This year, everything changed.” Conversely, if anyone stood up and said that groups like the National Organization of Women and the National Abortion Rights Action League shouldn’t be allowed to operate shelters for battered or homeless women because they can’t separate out their political agenda, they would be laughed right off stage.

Amazingly, our own federal Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention even funds a middle school curriculum “Healing the Hate” that suggests that among the warning signs for school counselors that a child may be dangerous is if he or she grows up in a “very religious” home. This is without one shred of evidence showing any linkage between Christians and any of these terrible acts of violence that our nation has faced. Imagine saying that a warning sign that a child may be dangerous or a threat to other classmates was the skin color or sexual orientation of that child’s household.

In case after case, people of faith are told to mind their own business, keep to themselves, and stay out of the affairs of the rest of society. People of faith are called extremists, labeled out and out threats to our nation, and generally find “Not Welcome Here” signs all over the place.

Law-abiding people, who regularly attend church and try to live their lives as examples to their children and their community, are lampooned and mocked. Priests, ministers, and the laymen who support them are expected to sit at the back of the bus when it comes to participating in the public square. As you’ve seen from my examples, when the rights of people of faith are trampled, newspapers and other leaders in our nation are either silent or complicit. Why is this? What about the rights of people of faith?

Bigotry of any kind should be confronted. It is always irrational and unjustified. Madmen who kill at a synagogue deserve our most stinging disapprobation. The tragic death of James Byrd was worthy of national condemnation. But just as we should be eternally vigilant against racial bigotry, we must also protect the rights of people of faith.

People of faith are decent, loving and patriotic. They work hard to provide for their families and are tireless advocates for improving our communities across the nation. Let’s join together and condemn those who would deny freedom and opportunity for every American. Let us have the simple common American decency to respect each and every person who feels within their heart the need to express their faith and respect of other people. We must deal with these circumstances honestly and assertively.

We are a great nation. We are a nation that has been declared in the past to be a good nation, a nation of good people. No matter what our prosperity, no matter what our power, we cannot be that if we cannot be a nation that has the decency to respect the faith of our citizens. We are failing in that regard, and we must turn it around.