Church-state debate may heat up when Congress returns Jan. 27

WASHINGTON — When Congress returns later this month from its winter recess, the tug of war across the line separating church and state is likely to increase in intensity.

This is, after all, an election year. Indeed, as the November congressional campaigns heat up, many issues long on the legislative agenda acquire more immediacy.

For Jewish activists, religious freedom and church-state issues will continue to be high on the agenda, as will efforts to contain Iran, promote Jerusalem's status as Israel's capital and address the problem of religious persecution abroad.

Here's a closer look at some of the legislative initiatives that will garner Jewish attention during the second half of the 105th Congress beginning Jan. 27.

On the domestic front, issues include:

*A school prayer amendment: In what has amounted to a recurring nightmare for church-state watchdogs, proposed school prayer amendments to the Constitution have been batted about the halls of Congress over the last several years.

The coming year, however, holds the first solid prospects for a vote on such a measure.

The "Religious Freedom Amendment" would give the go-ahead to government subsidy of religion, prayer in schools and other forms of religious expression on public property.

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

Last year, a House panel voted to support the measure. Now proponents are hoping to bring the measure to the floor for a vote — a move that would be welcomed by the Christian Coalition, which has said it will conduct a "major push" in 1998 to get the amendment passed.

Most observers believe that the amendment will fall far short of the two-thirds majority necessary for passage, though some believe it has a shot at winning a majority.

"Because it's so thermonuclear, we have to take it very seriously," said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.

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

*School vouchers: After suffering several setbacks last year, school voucher proponents are hoping a voucher plan for the District of Columbia can pass both houses of Congress this year.

One of the most controversial and divisive issues facing the Jewish community, vouchers are favored by most Orthodox and politically conservative Jews, while most others in the organized Jewish community remain opposed to the idea.

Last fall, the House voted down a national voucher bill that would have made public funding available for low-income students to use at private and religious schools across the country.

Shortly thereafter, the House narrowly approved an appropriations package for Washington, D.C., that included a voucher initiative for low-income students. But a Democratic-led filibuster in the Senate succeeded in removing the voucher plan from the bill.

Now, voucher supporters are seeking to advance a separate D.C. voucher bill, which they hope would serve as a trial balloon for a national push. Some observers believe it stands a good chance of reaching President Clinton's desk. A veto, however, would be a virtual certainty, which could prompt supporters to seek passage of a variety of other voucher measures.

*Religious Freedom Restoration Act: Following last year's Supreme Court decision striking down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as unconstitutional, religious leaders have been scrambling to find a way to restore the protections afforded under the law.

Enacted in 1993, RFRA made it harder for the government to interfere with the practice of religion. The justices, however, ruled that Congress overstepped its bounds and usurped judicial authority when it enacted the law.

Now, a group consisting of a handful of Jewish and other religious organizations is helping to craft a revised version of the law intended to circumvent the roadblocks set up by the Supreme Court.

"We will not reach everything that the old RFRA reached, but we think we'll reach substantial amounts of government behavior," said Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress' legal department.

*Religious freedom in the workplace: Legislation that would force employers to accommodate their employees' religious needs may finally see the light of day in the 105th Congress.

After languishing in two previous Congresses, the Workplace Religious Freedom Act is now acquiring the support Jewish activists have long sought.

The bill would set a new standard requiring employers to prove a "significant difficulty or expense" if they decide not to accommodate a worker's religious needs. Current law only requires an employer to "reasonably accommodate" such needs.

A hearing on the bill has already been held in the Senate, and proponents are hoping the House will take up the measure in coming months.

*Social welfare: Promoting and protecting social welfare programs will also remain high on the Jewish agenda. Jewish activists spent much of the holiday season successfully convincing the Clinton administration to restore in its budget proposal food stamps for legal immigrants and refugees, a benefit that was cut under last year's balanced-budget agreement. That battle will now shift to Capitol Hill, where its fate is uncertain.

In the realm of foreign policy, issues include:

*The containment of Iran: Containment of the Islamic state and its potential to rain terror on Israel and other nations remains a top priority for Jewish activists.

A Senate vote is expected on a bill that steps up pressure on Russia to stop aiding Iran's ballistic missile program. The House approved the Iran Missiles Proliferation Act before recessing last year, and the Senate version has already gained 82 co-sponsors.

The Clinton administration opposes the measure, saying it would interfere with diplomatic efforts to address the problem.

*Jerusalem bill: Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) has introduced legislation that would require all U.S. government publications to list Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

The legislation would also allow American citizens born in Jerusalem to list their country of birth as Israel, as opposed to the current practice of listing Jerusalem.