News Analysis: Prayer amendment facing an uphill battle

WASHINGTON — A controversial school prayer amendment to the Constitution continues to face an uphill battle in Congress despite a House panel's vote to support the legislation.

In a party-line vote, the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution voted to alter the law of the land through a "Religious Freedom Amendment" that would give a green light to government subsidy of religion, prayer in schools and other forms of religious expression on public property.

The House panel's vote marks the first time Congress has taken legislative action on a school prayer amendment.

Republicans made a similar bid to amend the Constitution during the last Congress, but the effort became mired in disputes over language.

The amendment now before Congress has the support of the House leadership and nearly 150 co-sponsors. But most observers believe the measure will fall short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

There is no movement in the Senate for such an amendment.

The Christian Coalition has advocated passage of the Religious Freedom Amendment throughout the past year, and some Capitol Hill observers said Tuesday's vote fulfilled a pledge by Republicans to take action on the amendment before Congress recesses in November.

The measure, sponsored by Reps. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) and Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), has been advanced as a means of reversing what its proponents see as 30 years of wrong-headed judicial decisions that have suppressed religious expression.

"Court rulings have turned `separation of church and state' into hostility toward religion," said Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.), who chairs the subcommittee.

The amendment, said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), will allow people of faith to "resume their place in society not as second-class citizens, but as full Americans."

Both lawmakers voted in favor of the amendment.

Church-state watchdogs, including most Jewish groups, have consistently derided the measure as unnecessary and dangerous, charging that it runs into the wall separating church and state.

"It's a catch-all problematic initiative that would mean vouchers and prayer in school with teacher participation and religious symbols at the heart of government," said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.

Opponents further emphasize that the First Amendment already protects religious expression, including voluntary prayer in public schools.

"What would be codified here is the most narrow and revisionist view of what the Establishment Clause is all about," added Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel for the American Jewish Committee, referring to the First Amendment's prohibition againstgovernment establishment of religion.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who voted against the measure, said it would "allow the use of the power of government to advance the religious goals of the majority against all minorities."

The proposed amendment would add the following language to the Constitution:

"To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Neither the United States nor any State shall establish any official religion, but the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. Neither the United States nor any State shall require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, prescribe school prayers, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion."

Most Jewish organizations say defeat of the initiative will continue to be a top legislative priority.

"We're going to put on a full-court press to educate members of Congress on the radical nature of this amendment and in the process try and educate broadly on a full range of church-state issues," Lieberman said.

The Orthodox Union, however, has decided not to take a position on the amendment. "We're sort of caught in the middle," said Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.'s Institute for Public Affairs, which opposed the school prayer amendment introduced in the last Congress.