Jewish activists battling school prayer amendment

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congressional Republicans have launched a new push to amend the Constitution to allow for organized school prayer, a move Jewish groups are fighting.

House Republicans advancing prayer in public school under the banner of a "religious equality amendment" say they intend to bring the measure to a vote in coming weeks.

Jewish groups and other religious and civil liberties watchdogs are decrying the move as an assault on religious liberty and the constitutional separation of church and state.

Introduced by House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), the bill has supplanted similar proposals by Reps. James Istook (R-Okla.) and Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), whose competing amendments split religious conservatives.

"Our problem is not with the Constitution itself," Hyde said at a hearing Tuesday of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, "but with courts that interpret the First Amendment in a way that undermines rather than protects religious freedom."

The measure, which comes largely at the urging of the Christian Coalition, is now on a fast track, and the GOP leadership wants Congress to vote on it by early September.

Jewish groups have traditionally opposed efforts to bring prayer into America's classrooms by tampering with the First Amendment. Several Christian groups also oppose the amendment.

"The current debate is a struggle that will determine whether we will continue our 220-year tradition of religious liberty and church-state separation that has worked so well, or whether we will adopt an ill-conceived, unnecessary and dangerous amendment that will radically transform our government and religious institutions and the very fabric of our society," Rabbi A. James Rudin, interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, testified to Congress.

The amendment proposes changing the Constitution "to further protect religious freedom, including the right of students in public schools to pray without government sponsorship or compulsion."

"All my constitutional-amending colleagues, I ask to cool it," said Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking Democratic member of the House Judiciary Committee who opposes the measure.

Observers doubt the House can muster the two-thirds majority needed to pass the amendment and say a similar Senate bill is unlikely.

But Jewish activists have launched an all-out campaign to defeat the amendment. At a rally this week on the stairs of the Supreme Court, a broad coalition of religious groups demonstrated against it.