Amendment to secure public school prayer again before Congress

Thursday, January 21, 1999

Once again, a resolution to amend the U.S. Constitution to guarantee voluntary prayer in public schools has been introduced in Congress.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., introduced a joint resolution earlier this month urging Congress to pass on to the states for ratification a constitutional amendment permitting public school prayer. The amendment states: “Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit individual or group prayer in public schools or other public institutions. No person shall be required by the United States or by any State to participate in prayer. Neither the United States nor any State shall prescribe the content of any such prayer.”

Last year, the 105th Congress also tried to pass a resolution amending the Constitution to bolster what many of the resolution's supporters believed was a weakened First Amendment. Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., argued for passage of his “Religious Freedom Amendment,” saying that the U.S. Supreme Court had gutted the First Amendment by barring certain religious activities in public schools.

According to Istook and his followers, high court rulings in the 1960s barred voluntary prayer in the public schools and therefore the Constitution needed an amendment to trump those court rulings. The amendment was soundly defeated last June in the House.

Emerson, who is beginning a second term as a southern Missouri representative, introduced the religion amendment along with resolutions for amendments barring abortion and desecration of the U.S. flag. She described these actions as taking “the lead again on legislative initiatives that make clear every life is sacred, (and) that protect our right to religious expression.”

At the moment Emerson's prayer amendment has no co-sponsors. It is pending in the House Judiciary Committee.

Rob Boston, assistant communications director for the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said he was not yet convinced that Emerson's resolution would garner much support in Congress. Nonetheless, he said his group would keep a watchful eye on the resolution.

“This does not seem to be an amendment that will get pushed,” Boston said. “It is odd to see this thing introduced, especially after the rather spectacular defeat of the Istook amendment and after the diminishment of the GOP ranks in the House.”

In the 1962 decision Engel v. Vitale, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a government-prescribed prayer for public school students in New York. In doing so, however, the high court noted that voluntary student prayer in the public schools was permissible.