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Several speak up for religious rights

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WASHINGTON — As witnesses told how government stopped them from wearing religious clothing or saying prayers in public, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch blamed it on "judicial activists" — and vowed to work against them.

"Judicial activists are attempting to force all remnants of religion from the public square," Hatch told his panel's Constitution Subcommittee on Tuesday. "This is a development that demands our attention."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the subcommittee, agreed, saying, "Government should not discriminate against private expressions of faith, and in favor of only nonreligious private speech, yet that is precisely what is happening all across the country."

Republicans brought in witnesses to bolster those claims.

Nashala Hearn, 12, told how she was suspended twice from school in Muskogee, Okla., for wearing a scarf required by her Muslim religion.

"The principal said it was a bandana and I had to change it or go home," she said.

The Justice Department intervened to help her continue wearing her hijab.

Still, "This experience has been very stressful, very depressing and humiliating," Hearn testified.

Barney Clark of Balch Springs, Texas, testified that the local senior citizens center stopped him and other seniors from their 20-year-old practice of singing religious songs and saying prayers before meals.

When he and others fought it, they were sent a letter "stating that our food program would be in jeopardy if we won the case. They were going to take away our meals at the center for standing up for our rights."

When the Justice Department intervened, Clark said seniors were "able to pray again, sing our music and have Brother Barton teach us and give us inspirational messages."

Kelly Schackelford, chief counsel of the Liberty Legal Institute, which pushed the case of the Texas senior citizens, testified, "We are moving quickly toward a naked public square with religion being treated as pornography when expressed in public. . . . If we do not speak up and act now, we will lose the great religious heritage and freedoms upon which this country was founded."

But others testified that sometimes religious activities they disagree with are still forced upon them by government — which, they said, is not right.

Steven Rosenauer, who is Jewish, said the Manatee County, Fla., School Board asked visitors to stand and recite the Lord's Prayer at each of its meetings. When he protested, "we received anonymous threatening phone calls, like . . . 'We know where you Jews live, and if you don't drop the lawsuit there will be trouble.' "

He said a settlement was reached where only truly nonsectarian prayer can be used to open board meetings.

Meanwhile, Roy S. Moore testified about why he refused a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument, leading to his removal as an Alabama Supreme Court justice.

He said under the Alabama Constitution, "it was part of my duty as chief justice to acknowledge God as the foundation of our justice system. By ordering me to remove the monument, the federal district court in effect commanded me to violate the oath I swore as chief justice."

But among those who had little sympathy was J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.

"The question is not whether the Ten Commandments embody the right teachings," he said. "The question rather is who is the right teacher — American politicians, public officials and judicial officers — or parents, religious leaders and families?

"As a Baptist minister, I can think of little better than for everyone to read and obey the Ten Commandments; as a constitutional lawyer, I can think of little worse than for government officials to tell us to do it."

E-mail: leed@dgsys.com