A proposed constitutional amendment that sponsors say would protect religious freedom and allow voluntary school prayer has begun to make its way through Congress.
Supporters, the majority of them Republican, say the measure also would keep government from requiring participation in religious activities or doling out benefits based on religious affiliation.
But Democrats said last week that the measure was unnecessary because voluntary school prayer already is allowed. They also charged that the wording of the proposal would require public funding for religious schools.
It was approved by the House Judiciary's Constitution subcommittee with an 8 to 4, vote. Action by the full committee is expected next spring.
Republicans say it would solve religious discrimination caused by governments and courts that interpret too strictly the church-state separation provisions of the First Amendment.
"We're trying to put in place something that will make it less likely that people's rights will be infringed," said subcommittee chairman Charles Canady (R) of Florida. But Democrats questioned the need, saying the Bill of Rights already guarantees freedom of religion.
"The more words we give the Supreme Court to interpret, the more they are going to have to interpret," said Rep. Melvin Watt (D) of North Carolina.
The panel also sparred over a provision to prohibit governments from denying "equal access to a benefit on account of religion." Canady said it meant that government couldn't discriminate against religious organizations when deciding to provide a particular benefit to private institutions.
The measure requires approval from two-thirds of the House and Senate and three-fourths of the states to be added to the Constitution.
It reads: "To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Neither the United States nor any state shall establish any official religion, but the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. Neither the United States nor any state shall require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, prescribe school prayers, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion."