WRITTEN STATEMENT BY ATTORNEY RON BARBER
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, I would first like to express my appreciation for the opportunity to address this Committee concerning the subject of religious freedom. I am of the opinion that Congressional action is the only viable solution to the widespread oppression of First Amendment religious freedom rights which we are presently seeing, a very serious problem which, in my opinion, threatens to undermine the very foundation of our Country.
I am a Certified Public Accountant and licensed Attorney at Law, and have been engaged in the private practice of law in the State of Oklahoma for the past 15 years. Since 1990, I have spent a significant amount of time serving as a volunteer attorney in various capacities for The Rutherford Institute, an international organization whose focus is the defense and protection of religious liberties. During most of the time that I have been affiliated with this organization, I have served as the Coordinator for the State of Oklahoma, and while serving in that capacity my responsibilities included the handling of inquiries by individuals or institutions whose religious freedoms had either been denied or diminished, as well as the supervision and fitigation of religious liberty cases throughout the State of Oklahoma and neighboring States. As a result of this experience, I believe I have gained valuable insight concerning real problems that are being faced by real people on a daily basis throughout the State of Oklahoma and this great Country.
During the time that I have been privileged to handle religious freedom cases, my office has handled between 450 and 500 inquiries or complaints involving infringement of religious freedoms. While many of these cases have been solved through negotiations with the offending parties, about one in ten of them have required further action beyond such preliminary efforts, including appeals before our Federal Appellate Court system. I could easily exhaust all the time allotted by this Committee for today's testimony relating the numerous accounts of infringement of First Amendment rights which I have dealt with, just in the last five to six years. Instead, I would like to relate just a few examples of some of the cases we have handled which will hopefully assist this Committee in understanding the gravity of this situation.
A staff person working for a major hospital in Tulsa was terminated for sharing her beliefs with a patient, even though there were no other specific restrictions or policies which prohibited hospital employees from generally engaging in informal discussions with patients regarding matters of purely personal interest. When she sought unemployment benefits through the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, the hearing officer determined that she was not eligible for such benefits since she was terminated for "just cause", thus endorsing the hospital's arbitrary policy of censoring speech based on its content.
A street preacher was denied a permit to speak with aid of a portable public address system in the pedestrian mall area of downtown Tulsa, even though others, including public officials, were regularly granted the right to utilize such equipment. The result of this action was the creation of a policy which arbitrarily elevates "acceptable" speech in the public arena over other forms of "less-desirable" speech.
The official seal of the City of Edmond, Oklahoma, came under attack because the seal has, among numerous symbols reflecting the City's heritage, a religious symbol. The City and other interested parties were required to expend significant resources to defend the City's Official seal which is as much a part of that City's heritage and tradition as its town square.
Certain citizens of the City of Glenpool, Oklahoma, were threatened with passage of a proposed Ordinance prohibiting their activities in distributing materials reflecting their religious beliefs on public sidewalks adjacent to public school property. Such action threatened infringement of free speech and free exercise fights, and required those citizens to take action to avoid the passage of such an Ordinance.
The much publicized "scare" concerning prayer at athletic events swept through School Board meetings across the State like wildfire, resulting in widespread fear and "knee-jerk" reactions. In many cases the School Boards have eradicated all forms of religious speech, including constitutionally protected speech, despite the pleas of their constituents. I attended numerous School Board meetings, assisting interested parent groups and pleading for Boards Members and Administrators to avoid over- reaction, and witnessed reluctant Board Members following the advice of School District counsel out of a fear of individual liability and the financial drain on District funds of expensive, cumbersome and protracted litigation.
One State employee employed by the Department of Human Services, who is testifying personally today, was prohibited by Department policy from engaging on her own time in certain religious based counseling activities and from conducting home Bible studies, under the guise of a "conflict of interest" policy which, as applied, had the effect of severely infringing upon her free speech and free exercise rights. Only after extended fitigation and significant waste of State resources and taxpayer dollars was this unconstitutional government action remedied.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a police officer has been prohibited from sharing his religious beliefs, while other forms of speech are allowed in similar circumstances with virtually no restrictions. Attempts to rectify such wrongs have been met with defensive posturing, hostility and intimidation.
These are but a few examples of the numerous complaints and cases my colleagues and I have handled over the past few years. Calls and inquiries keep coming in every day from parents of public school students who have been denied rights to assemble, wear t- shirts with religious messages, or display posters in "public forum" areas; from citizens precluded by zoning regulations from displaying signs or placards in their own yards or prohibited by some other governmental action from exercising their First Amendment rights; from public school teachers, Administrators and School Board Members who are uncertain of their rights, or the rights of parents or students; and from employees of various government agencies who are being forced to endure policies or practices offensive to their religious beliefs or who are otherwise having their free speech or free exercise fights diminished in some way. The list goes on and on.
This wave of oppression does not emanate from some tyrannical government or secret regime, as some might contend. I have dealt with these situations for a number of years throughout Oklahoma and surrounding states, an area of the Country some refer to as the "buckle" of the "Bible belt". In most cases where I have dealt directly with those responsible for infringing upon the religious freedoms of others, I have found that they are not tyrants or opposers of the Constitution, but well-meaning people, such as law enforcement personnel, School Board Members and Administrators, and other public officials, many of whom hold to their own religious beliefs and cherish First Amendment rights just as strongly as those who are their "victims". Their actions are most commonly a result of the confusion and uncertainty in the law which prevails in our time concerning the constitutionally protected religious freedoms which should be enjoyed by all persons.
This confusion and uncertainty is primarily the result of Constitutional jurisprudence and the maze of judicial interpretations which have become discernable only to the seasoned constitutional scholar. Such confusion and uncertainty will undoubtedly continue until action is taken to codify, in a more clearly discernable manner, the state of the law with respect to religious freedom. It is my hope that action may be taken by the Congress which would address these issues and help preserve crucial foundational principles that were envisioned and subscribed to by our founding fathers.