Congress heats up as battlefield over school prayer amendment

WASHINGTON — As conservative lawmakers launch a renewed drive for a school prayer amendment, church-state watchdogs have vowed to make its defeat a top legislative priority.

Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) has once again taken up the campaign he launched in the last Congress to win passage of a constitutional amendment allowing for prayer and other forms of religious expression on public property.

"This amendment is the only way we can end 30 years of court decisions that have turned First Amendment rights upside down," Istook said at a Capitol Hill news conference Monday.

Flanked by representatives of conservative religious groups, Istook said he intends to formally introduce the amendment when Congress returns from its Easter recess.

The proposed amendment's outlook, however, is far from certain.

In the last Congress, efforts to win passage of a similar "Religious Equality Amendment" became bogged down by disputes over language.

But Istook has not given up. With his backers pledging that this effort will be the most concerted to date, the lawmaker said, "Courts have gone far beyond outlawing prayer in many public school settings.

"They have aided a systematic campaign to strip religious symbols, references and heritage from public view."

Banding together in opposition to the proposed amendment, representatives of the Coalition to Preserve Religious Liberty — an alliance of more than 50 religious and civil liberties groups — held their own news conference on Capitol Hill, at which they described the proposed amendment as both "unnecessary" and "dangerous."

The coalition includes Jewish groups across the political and religious gamut.

Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, echoed the view of many Jewish organizations when he said at the news conference: "We already have a religious freedom amendment — it is called the First Amendment."

"If somewhere in this nation a child is being told by her teacher or principal that she cannot say grace over her lunch," he added, "then the answer is to educate the teacher or the administrator — not to amend the Constitution."

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, dismissed the effort as a "sham."

"It is based on the bold pretense that religious freedom is in serious jeopardy in our country, when in fact it is not," he said. "It will marginalize non-Christians and it will give government officials the power to run roughshod over the rights of religious minorities."

Istook's "Religious Freedom Amendment," as it is being billed this time, specifically calls for securing "the people's right to acknowledge God."

"The right to pray or acknowledge religious belief, heritage or tradition on public property, including public schools, shall not be infringed," the amendment states.

"The government shall not compel joining in prayer, initiate or compose school prayers, discriminate against or deny a benefit on account of religion."

In addition to concerns about opening the door for prayer in schools, some critics expressed alarm that the amendment could also pave the way for government-funded school vouchers and other forms of aid to religious institutions.

The Christian Coalition, for its part, is pledging to funnel between $1 million and $2 million into radio ads, mailings, telephone banks, rallies and town hall meetings to help win support for the amendment.

"There is no issue and there will be no legislation in this Congress that will take a higher priority for us than the passage of this amendment and we are confident that we will begin to move the ball forward in this session," said Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition.

Lynn and other critics of the conservative Christian lobby were quick to pounce on Reed's remarks, noting that earlier this year, Reed unveiled a legislative agenda suggesting that helping the urban poor was the group's top priority.

The likelihood of passage is far from certain, despite the strong conservative hold on both houses of Congress.

In addition, to win approval, a constitutional amendment must pass by a majority of two-thirds in both the House and Senate, and then be ratified by three-fourths of the states.

Last time around, conservative lawmakers split over competing proposals offered by Istook and Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.).

The 105th Congress is already presenting a new opportunity; House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), who introduced his own version of school prayer legislation last year, has declared his support for Istook's amendment, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) last week commended Istook for renewing the debate on the issue.

Hyde, meanwhile, has indicated that the House Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, is also ready to take up the issue. It is not certain whether he will back Istook this time.

At least for now, there is no movement in the Senate for such an amendment.

Church-state watchdogs, for their part, have vowed to fight the effort at every turn.

"The success of 207 years of our present First Amendment demonstrates that what Thomas Jefferson and James Madison gave us, Ernest Istook and Ralph Reed should not be allowed to take away," Lynn said.