'Religious Equity' Goes Far Beyond Classroom Prayer

HERE Americans can pray is once again before Congress.

But this time, "school prayer" is merely a catch phrase for a far broader debate.

A proposed constitutional amendment designed to ensure "religious equality" would open the door to expressions and displays of religious belief in public schools and in government office buildings, public parks, courtrooms, and on government-subsidized radio and TV broadcasts.

Also creating controversy is a key phrase, found in many versions of the proposed amendment, which permits government "benefits," paving the way for religious schools and day-care centers to receive government-voucher funding.

"It is the most important part of the amendment," says Michael McConnell, a law professor at the University of Chicago and a drafter of one version of the amendment. Mr. McConnell testified before a House subcommittee last week in the 104th Congress's first hearing on religious freedom in America.

The most widely circulated version of the amendment states that "neither the United States nor any state shall ... deny benefits to or otherwise discriminate against any person or group on account of the religious character of their speech, ideas, motivations, or identity."

The "benefits" clause has alarmed supporters of public education, including teachers' unions, and widens the debate to include discussion of whether taxpayer money should be used for religious purposes.

If passed, this amendment would advance not only the decades-long debate over prayer in public schools but also the question of religious displays in public settings - such as manger scenes in post offices at Christmastime - and the school voucher issue.

Supporters of the constitutional amendment, including the politically powerful conservative Christian Coalition, say it is needed to end growing discrimination against religion in "the public square."

They cite numerous examples of such discrimination.

This month a Christian group in Providence, R.I., was not allowed to hold a mass baptism in a public pool following complaints by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In New York, Fordham University's public radio station was denied a federal grant to build a new radio tower, because the station broadcasts a one-hour Catholic mass each Sunday.

Throughout the country, university officials and local school boards are grappling with the issue of prayer - or even the utterance of the word "God" - at graduation ceremonies, often taking a position against such religious speech to avoid potential lawsuits.

Opponents of a "religious equality amendment," as it is being called, argue that it would fundamentally alter the First Amendment of the Constitution, which forbids the "establishment" of religion by government. The First Amendment already protects freedom of religion in the "free exercise" clause, they add.

Amendment supporters say that, to an increasing degree, the establishment clause has "trumped" the free-exercise clause in court decisions, leading judges and other public officials to take an increasingly restrictive stand toward religion in public.

"Religious expression is being treated as offensive, in the same category as sexually explicit items. This is not right," said Rep. Ernest Istook Jr. (R) of Oklahoma, the House leadership's point man on the religious-equality amendment, speaking at the congressional hearing.

Both sides do agree that some of the restrictions on religious speech stem from a lack of understanding of what the Constitution does allow.

"If a group of students want to pray at lunch, that's fine," says Barry Lynn, executive director of the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which opposes the amendment. "But the government [a teacher or administrator] can't set the time, the place, or manner, or content of prayer."

At the congressional hearing last Thursday, supporters of the amendment revealed conceptual differences within their ranks. In his testimony, Congressman Istook said the amendment would allow localities to establish their own strategy for allowing public prayers. The prayers "would vary from day to day, from place to place, because there is a diversity" in this country, he said.

Istook's view drew some criticism. "Mr. Istook is going beyond a moment of silence and contemplating vocal prayer; this has nothing to do with religious equality," says Greg Baylor of the Christian Legal Society, which supports a religious-equality amendment, speaking in an interview after the hearing.

House Democrats at the hearing accused Istook of trying to undermine the constitutional protection of the rights of minorities.

Istook promised in the near future to introduce precise language for the amendment. But for now, the working group of religious organizations he had been consulting with on the amendment has stopped meeting.

Mr. Baylor, whose organization belongs to the group, says it is waiting to see the wording of the legislation Istook will introduce before it proceeds.

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