S P E C I A L F E A T U R E
RLPA Battle: Victory in the House
Several months of struggle over the proposed Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA), H.R. 4019, ended with an apparent victory for HSLDA and our supporters on August 6 as Representative Charles Canady of Florida, RLPAs primary sponsor and Chairman of the Constitution Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, submitted an amended bill that removed all references to the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. The subcommittee adopted the amendment and recommended the amended RLPA on to the full Judiciary Committee.
The amendment was the result of an August 5 agreement reached between Canady and Michael Farris. Canady recognized that his bill was not going to move so long as the objectionable link between religion and interstate commerce was in the bill. He offered to remove that provision provided he could get Farris endorsement. Farris agreed to cease active oppositionstopping short of approvalonce the bills highly objectionable commerce provisions were removed.
In many ways, the RLPA battle has been the most difficult political struggle and the most impressive demonstration of the political savvy and committed effort of HSLDAs member families in the history of our ministry.
In 1994, when HSLDA spearheaded the effort to defeat H.R. 6 and its attempt to impose national teacher certification requirements on home educators, we were joined in that crusade by a number of well-known conservative and evangelical groups. Home schoolers led the fight and provided most of the grassroots phone calls and letters, but the active support of national Christian leaders like Focus on the Familys Dr. James Dobson helped to bring that battle to a successful conclusion.
This time, tragically, HSLDA stood in opposition not only to the political Leftgroups like the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State who typically challenge traditional family values and the role of faith in our societybut also many of the nations most influential and well-respected Christian ministries such as Prison Fellowship, Focus on the Family, and the Family Research Council.
It is worth noting again, as HSLDA letters, press releases and other materials have stated time and time again throughout the RLPA debate, the we have never for a moment questioned the good motives and intentions of the dear Christian brothers who have labored so hard on the other side of this issue. We hold these groups, and leaders like Dr. Dobson and Charles Colson, in the highest regard for their ongoing major contributions to American society and the work of the Kingdom, and we look forward to working side-by-side with them on many issues in the future. However, once HSLDA leaders concluded that the dangers raised by the RLPA outweighed any potential gains for the cause of religious liberty, it became our unhappy duty to take a public stand opposing their position on this particular issue.
Many Christians across the country found themselves deluged with impassioned pleas from respected Christian leaders strongly urging, in some cases, support of the RLPA, in others, opposition. One days mail brought a powerful letter, mailed by Dobson, Colson, and other evangelical leaders to Christian home schoolers across the country, urging immediate phone calls to Congress supporting passage of the RLPA. To counter this direct attack on HSLDAs constituency base, a mass mailing effort was immediately organized to deliver a response letter to HSLDA member families across the country. On Tuesday, July 21, the office library was filled with tables of volunteersgrandparents, parents, and home school childrensticking mailing labels on over 60,000 letters. Without the tireless efforts of these volunteers, the letter could never have been delivered to HSLDA members in such a timely manner.
What is a concerned citizen to do in such circumstances, when respected national leaders urge opposite actions, and when the issue is phrased in the obscure language of legal tests: compelling state interest, neutral law of general applicability, and material effect on interstate commerce?
HSLDA members had only one choice: they had to read through the material, ask thoughtful questions, and reach their own conclusions on the merits of the issue. And that is exactly what they did. The staff of HSLDAs Congressional Action Program were inundated with calls, e-mail and faxes from members, seeking to sort through the questions and reach a good understanding of the issues. By the thousands, all across the country, they came to realize that the concerns expressed by HSLDA were legitimate. They came to realize that the dangers of an expansive federal power under the interstate commerce clause outweighed any benefit to religious freedom from a commerce-based RLPA.
Just as in the 1994 H.R. 6 battlebut perhaps more impressively given the split in the Christian communitythe phone calls, letters, faxes and e-mails from HSLDA members turned defeat into victory. According to sources in various Capitol Hill offices, constituent calls opposing the commerce-based RLPA outweighed calls in favor of the bill by anywhere from three-to-one to ten-to-one.
Both HSLDA leaders and members came under attack on Capitol Hill for our activism. In a August 3 briefing held for Capitol Hill staffers hosted by Representative Canady and representatives of the conservative organizations supporting the bill, one staffer asked why the phone calls were so one-sided against the RLPA.
One RLPA advocate said that when you talk to people about religious liberty, their eyes glaze over. Another added that the reason their eyes glaze over is that for non-attorney types the issue is confusing. It is ironic that this echos the essence of the infamous criticism made by the Washington Post that Christian conservatives are poor, uneducated, and easily led. In fact, the massive response of home schoolers is a tribute to our movements ability to understand complex issues and our willingness to stand up for the principle of the original intent of the Constitution.
Congress can never ignore this kind of direct, grassroots response. Both House Republican leadership and a broad range of members of Congress began to realize that it never makes sense to push ahead with a bill that is generating such heated opposition from the voters.
Finally, on Wednesday, August 5, the tide turned. Representative Canady called Michael Farris, told him that he was willing to delete the Commerce Clause provisions from the RLPA, and asked if HSLDA would drop our active opposition to the bill. An agreement was reached.
When the House Constitution Subcommittee met on Thursday, August 6, Chairman Canady offered an amendment to RLPA in the form of a substitute bill. The new bill drops all references to the commerce power. It protects religious freedom by the high standard of strict scrutiny only in cases that occur in federally-funded programs or institutions, and in local land use and zoning cases. Because this approach still protects religious freedom only for some Americans, not for all, HSLDA is unable to actively support this legislation as a matter of conscience. However, the deletion of the extremely dangerous Commerce Clause provisions made it possible for us to drop opposition.
The deletion of the Commerce Clause from the RLPA was, of course, viewed as a great disaster in some quarters. During the subcommittee mark-up, the bills Democrat co-sponsor, Representative Nadler of New York, expressed strong displeasure with the change. He commented that the only Commerce Clause concerns raised during hearings on the bill had been mentioned by someone (referring to Michael Farris) whose view of the Commerce Clause is stuck with James Madison in 1810. Chairman Canady responded that the Commerce Clause provisions had raised political objections from a number of directions, both left and right, and that in his view, the bill could not be passed unless those provisions were deleted. Mr. Nadler demonstrated his ongoing opposition by voting present in all of the subcommittees actions. Over his objection, the amendment was adopted and the bill, as amended, was recommended favorably to the full House Judiciary Committee. (Of course, Mr. Farris was very pleased to be publicly identified with James Madison in his views on the original intent of the Constitution.)
Although the battle over RLPA appears to be over, there are still aspects of the process that will require HSLDAs ongoing scrutiny. First, it is conceivable that Mr. Nadler or another member of Congress could attempt an amendment, either in the Judiciary Committee or on the floor of the House, to restore the Commerce Clause provisions. Representative Canady has given his word that he would not support this action, and both Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde of Illinois and the House Republican leadership appear to be pleased to have this fight resolved, so such an attempt does not seem likely to succeed.
A somewhat larger question mark, however, is the Senate version of the RLPA. At present, HSLDA continues to oppose the Senate version, which still contains the offensive Commerce Clause provisions. It is not clear whether RLPAs Senate co-sponsors, Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah and Democrat Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, will follow Canadys lead in making the needed changes. Since Canady and the House have been the driving force behind this legislation from the beginning, HSLDA is hopeful that the Senate will follow the lead of the House in dropping the commerce power. Some advocacy groups for the original RLPA, however, are already lobbying the Senate to hang onto the original version. If this should happen, it may be necessary for HSLDA troops to come back into action, fighting against such an action in the Senate and, if needed, in conference committee.
The problem of protecting religious freedom remains, and HSLDA remains committed to seeking real solutions for all Americans (see box in center of page). The potential for federal regulation of home education remains, and Congress use of the Commerce Clause, in particular, will require great vigilance in the future. For today, however, the immediate threat to liberty appears to have been averted. For today, we can all rest a little bit easier.
Praise be to God, to Whom the victory belongs, and thanks to the thoughtful, loyal, activist members of HSLDA for coming through once again.