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The debate over religious expression

As 10-year-old Joshua Burton tells it, he was sitting in class when the principal stormed in and confiscated his Bible.

Amber Johnston-Loehner says the gospel tracts she brought to share with her fifth-grade class were confiscated by her teacher and thrown away by the principal.

Rebecca Fiore says she was threatened with a 10-day suspension when she tried to tell her middle-school's assistant principal that she had a right to carry a Bible in the hallways.

Different schools, different principals, different cities. But the stories these Florida students told to a congressional subcommittee that met Friday in Tampa are typical of those Congress is hearing from all over the country.

Congress might consider a constitutional amendment designed to bolster the First Amendment's guarantees of religious freedom. No specific amendment has been introduced in Congress yet, but the idea is to allow school prayer and all sorts of religious expression, such as Christmas decorations at public buildings. The amendment also would allow government money to be spent on church schools.

So far, the amendment is being promoted mainly by the religious right. Since any proposed constitutional amendment comes to the House subcommittee chaired by Rep. Charles Canady, a Lakeland Republican, he is conducting hearings.

"What we're seeing is evidence of an environment of hostility toward religion which is deeply troubling," Canady said.

His field hearing in Tampa was one of several he has scheduled this summer to collect opinions all over the country. Detractors accused him of a dog-and-pony show to promote his agenda, but Canady said he hasn't even decided whether a religious liberties amendment is needed.

Whatever the motive, field hearings are a refreshing change from their staid, legalistic cousins on Capitol Hill. This one included hooting, heckling and outbursts from the audience.

And each audience is different. Canady's hearing in Harrisonburg, Va., two weeks ago was packed with religious conservatives. Tampa was just the opposite. The noisy majority in the audience of about 150 opposed any sort of new amendment, and Canady vainly kept gaveling for order in the Jefferson High School auditorium.

The audience thundered its approval when Henry Green, a Southern Baptist who pastors Heritage Community Church in St. Petersburg, told Canady, "I do not want to see religion, and especially prayer, used as a tool by the state or as a political football to achieve the political ends on the left or the right."

"You have the right to your religious convictions, but you do not have the right to impose your religious convictions on other persons," said Delano Stewart, a civil-rights lawyer from Tampa, to more cheers.

The problem is not that the U.S. Supreme Court has outlawed all religious expression on government property. It hasn't, although most lawyers agree its rulings on religious matters have been confusing.

American kids still have the freedom to read their Bibles during free time at school. They may pray silently anytime, say grace before meals in the cafeteria, gather to pray at the flagpole before and after school, distribute religious literature and wear religious T-shirts.

But kids are getting in trouble for it, and that's the problem, witnesses said Friday. Apparently many school officials don't know what is legal. Or they are so terrified of being sued by someone offended by religion that they squelch any expression of religion they see, witnesses said.

So now they are being sued by the other side.

Amber sued the Polk County School Board about the gospel tracts and won. Rebecca was allowed to keep carrying her Bible after her mother's lawyer met with school officials in Tampa. Joshua's case is now in court in Orlando.

School officials say Joshua was being disruptive. He had been warned several times not to bring his Bible to school before the principal took it.

"To me, the Bible is a sacred book," said Joshua, sitting next to his father at the witness table, his feet swinging just above the floor. "All I could think of doing was just to sit at my desk and cry. I hope this never happens to anyone else."

Pastor Green agreed that sort of thing should never happen to students.

"We must educate the educators, not change the constitution," he said to wild cheers from the audience.

Congress tried to fix this problem two years ago with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It had wide support from various religions and civil-liberties groups and both political parties.

It directed courts to use a tougher legal standard in religious freedom cases so government couldn't run roughshod over people's religious practices.

But it is being challenged in court. If the Supreme Court overturns it, that will be all the more reason for a religious liberties amendment, proponents said.

Most of the adults involved in this debate grew up with school prayer, and not all have fond memories. Linda Bacon, now president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, was a preacher's daughter who thought rote recitation of the Lord's Prayer each morning trivialized it.

Harriet Abrahm of the American Jewish Committee remembers being the only Jewish kid in her high school in Gadsden, Ala. Every morning, her Christian teacher ended the prayer: "And may we pray for the one among us who is not a believer."

Abrahm said she didn't realize at first the teacher meant her.

There's no guarantee another amendment would stop violations of religious rights, said Stewart, the Tampa lawyer.

"We have laws against murder; there's murders every day," he said.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and the only other member of the subcommittee who came to Florida for the hearing, said an amendment should be a last resort. But something needs to be done to clear up the confusion so students won't have to go to court to affirm the rights they already have, he said.

The founding fathers never intended for the First Amendment to become a "lawyers' full employment act," he said.

_ To reach staff writer Ellen Debenport by e-mail: edebenportsptimes.com.

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