Icon of religious right dealt election setback

WASHINGTON — As religious conservatives awaited their day on Capitol Hill, anticipating a long-sought vote on a constitutional amendment authorizing school prayer, voters dealt a setback this week to one of the movement's torchbearers.

In a closely watched election battle, Alabama Gov. Fob James Jr., a staunch conservative whose stand on religious issues has attracted national attention, failed to win a majority in Tuesday's Republican primary and was forced into a June 30 runoff.

James gained notoriety for threatening to call out the National Guard to protect a courtroom display of the Ten Commandments, fighting a judge's order that put an end to school-sponsored religious activities and saying that the Bill of Rights does not apply to his state.

Observers say that James' poor showing raises questions about the political potency of conservatives who rallied to his cause. James attracted support from several Christian conservative leaders, including the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly and Ralph Reed, the former director of the Christian Coalition who is serving as James' political consultant.

James' opponents, for their part, hammered away at his controversial stances as they campaigned against him.

"It's not a case where these issues were tangential," said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. "The issues were clearly repudiated — not by the voters in New York or California, but by the voters in Alabama," a conservative stronghold.

"I think that says a lot."

The setback for James came as the House of Representatives prepared to vote this week on a controversial amendment to the Constitution that would pave the way for taxpayer funding of religious schools, prayer in public schools and other forms of religious expression on public property.

This marks the first time a school-prayer amendment has come up for a vote since 1971.

Amending the constitution requires a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress and approval by 34 states. There is no movement in the Senate for any such amendment. Even though the measure stood little chance of passing, religious conservatives were likely to claim a victory in seeing it advance to a floor vote.

The Christian Coalition, one of the amendment's most ardent boosters, has also made it clear that it intends to include each lawmaker's vote in its voter guides for the November election.

Some observers said the fact that the vote is occurring is itself a demonstration of the potency of the religious right.

"This vote is happening because there is a receptive ear among the Republican leadership in the House to the entreaties of the conservative religious right and no other reason," said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, which took out a full-page ad in the New York Times this week urging action against the amendment.

The so-called "Religious Freedom Amendment," sponsored by Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), has been advanced to reverse what its proponents see as 30 years of wrong-headed judicial decisions that have suppressed religious expression, making it difficult for schoolchildren to participate in voluntary, student-led prayer.

The amendment says there shall be no official religion or mandatory religious activity, but that the government shall not infringe on "people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property, including schools."