School Prayer Pushed Again As Conservative Litmus Test

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

After more than a year of stalemate, congressional conservatives have settled on the wording of a proposed constitutional amendment designed to guarantee free religious expression in public settings - including prayer in public schools.

At a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing today, that amendment will be discussed, as will a year-old initiative by the Clinton administration to inform public school districts about religious activities that are legal in public schools.

The administration argues that an amendment is not necessary, because the First Amendment already guarantees citizens freedom of religious expression in public, as long as it is not coercive or disruptive. Supporters of the amendment argue that government antipathy toward religion in public has resulted in persecution of religious people, and that an amendment is necessary to protect their rights.

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The sudden push for the amendment - which took last-minute involvement by No. 2 House Republican Dick Armey of Texas to work out final language - appears politically motivated. Election day is fast approaching, and the Christian Coalition wants a vote on a religious freedom amendment in time to include the results in its voter guides, which record members' votes on issues key to religious conservatives.

In the Christian Coalition's "Contract With the American Family," issued last year, the so-called religious equality amendment topped the agenda.

Senate GOP leaders have no plans for a vote on an amendment this session, so the House move appears to be an effort to lay down a marker for the campaign. Opinion polls consistently show the public favors an amendment allowing prayer in schools.

The proposed amendment in the House reads as follows:

"In order to secure the right of the people to acknowledge and serve God according to the dictates of conscience, neither the United States nor any state shall deny any person equal access to a benefit, or otherwise discriminate against any person, on account of religious belief, expression, or exercise. This amendment does not authorize government to coerce or inhibit religious belief, expression, or exercise."

A key sticking point among conservatives was whether the amendment would explicitly mention school prayer. In the compromise wording, language asserting "the right of students in public schools to pray without government sponsorship or compulsion" was put in the preamble.

"It's always a very delicate balancing act when writing constitutional language," says Brian Lopina, a Washington lobbyist for the Christian Coalition.

Some religious legal activists were concerned that if the amendment itself explicitly mentioned school prayer, other forms of public religious expression - such as displaying religious objects in a government office or public park - would be ruled outside the purview of the amendment, Mr. Lopina says.

Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which opposes the amendment, says the fine-tuning of the language is immaterial. "It's a vote for school prayer, even if it doesn't say 'school prayer' in the amendment itself," he says.

One aspect of the language that does concern Mr. Lynn is the inclusion of the word "benefit." Supporters of the amendment acknowledge that this could pave the way for people to receive government vouchers to attend religious schools, which is currently unconstitutional.

A year ago, President Clinton tried to take some of the impetus away from religious conservatives by directing the Department of Education to distribute guidelines on religion in school to every public-school district in the country. The point was to make clear that children are allowed, for example, to bring Bibles to school for private use or have "meet me at the flag pole" prayer sessions before school. Some schools have prohibited such activities, acting out of ignorance at times.

Supporters of the new amendment say the government's guidelines have not reduced infringement of religious liberties in schools. The Rutherford Institute, a conservative civil liberties organization, reports it has fielded slightly more complaints in the last year than in the previous year.

But the National School Boards Association reports the opposite, at least as of December. The organization reported a "dramatic drop" in the number of inquiries it had received, compared with the previous 10 years, about how schools could appropriately celebrate the holiday season.

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