CONGRESS is gearing up to consider a constitutional amendment designed to guarantee freedom of religious expression in public -- including student-led prayers in public schools.
The proposal, called the ''Religious Equality Amendment,'' is item No. 1 in the powerful Christian Coalition's recently unveiled ''Contract With the American Family.'' The amendment also presents a clear challenge to Congress's new Republican leadership, so far reluctant to champion some of the socially divisive causes of the religious right.
But as a House subcommittee readies for a June 7 hearing on religious freedom, a rift has emerged among the 10 Christian conservative groups that have been drafting proposed legislation. They have been unable to settle differences over details, and now some have gone public with draft versions of the bill, despite a vow to keep quiet until consensus had emerged.
Some religious-freedom advocates are also upset by what they see as an unfair effort by conservative Christian activists to claim leadership and authorship.
This isn't just a tempest in a temple. How the amendment is worded and presented will help determine how the controversial issue plays in Congress and with the public.
The Religious Equality Amendment (REA) represents a historic broadening of a decades-long effort to put the right to school prayer in the Constitution. It seeks to guarantee freedom of religious expression in all public places.
''We are getting beyond the old debate, which conjures an image of Caesar commanding a school prayer,'' says Forest Montgomery of the National Association of Evangelicals. But, he adds, this new, broader amendment is uncharted territory and must be handled very carefully.
That's why he and Steven McFarland of the Virginia-based Christian Legal Society are unhappy that another member of the working group, the Traditional Values Coalition, released a draft of the document on Monday.
Divide not too wide
''This isn't a capital offense, but it's unfortunate, because the amendment shouldn't be associated with a face or an individual organization,'' says Mr. McFarland. ''To pass a constitutional amendment, we'll need to galvanize mainstream [religious groups]. If you put an extremely conservative face on this, you could lose 80 percent of the essential constituencies.''
The Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the California-based Traditional Values Coalition, defends his decision to hold a press conference, saying that several recent public discussions of the amendment effectively meant the embargo was off.
''I felt there was a growing misunderstanding of what the amendment is about, that people were thinking it was another call for mandatory school prayer,'' says Mr. Sheldon in an interview here. ''Once the public gets an idea about what something is, it's hard to undo it.''
Members of the working group say there is wide agreement on the main part of the draft amendment, which states: ''Neither the United States nor any State shall abridge the freedom of any person or group, including students in public schools, to engage in prayer or other religious expression in circumstances in which expression of a nonreligious character would be permitted, nor deny benefits to or otherwise discriminate against any person or group on account of the religious character of their speech, ideas, motivations or identity.''
On this, the fault lines of debate are predictable: The American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and other advocates of strict church-state separation oppose the language.
''It's extremely dangerous,'' says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United. ''It's really a repeal of the establishment clause,'' he adds, referring to the point in the First Amendment to the Constitution that bars government establishment of religion. ''It's so broad that you could actually have city councils establishing an official religion for official events.''
Mr. Lynn asserts that the Constitution already protects the free exercise of religion. Many conservative Christians agree, but they say the public is ill-informed about what constitutes a legal expression of faith.
To counter that perception, last month a coalition of groups, mainly religious, released a report detailing ways in which religious activity is already permissible in schools. On the question of prayer, the report said, ''Students have the right to pray individually or in groups or to discuss their religious views with their peers so long as they are not disruptive.''
Religious freedom coalition
Included in the coalition is the First Church of Christ, Scientist, publisher of this newspaper. The National Association of Evangelicals, which is active in the effort to write the Religious Equality Amendment, also endorsed the coalition report -- showing that there is some agreement across the spectrum of views that public education on freedom of religion is needed.
Still, amendment supporters point to myriad incidents that they say show how religious expression has been hounded out of public life, such as schoolchildren ordered to leave their Bibles at home, or the mention of Jesus being banned in school speeches.
Sometimes, say conservatives, school administrators are just playing it safe and keeping all religious expression out of school to avoid lawsuits. And the only way to ensure that religious speech is allowed in public places, they say, is to adopt an amendment specifically guaranteeing the freedom of religious expression.