Congressman introduces another prayer bill

Wednesday, September 15, 1999

Ernest Istook...
Ernest Istook

A U.S. lawmaker has once again introduced a bill that would amend the Constitution to enable state and federal officials to encourage and sponsor prayer.

After a prayer rally on Capitol grounds that included gospel hymns and speeches by Washington, D.C., pastors calling on Congress to support government-sponsored prayer and religious activities in the public schools, Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., announced today the introduction of his Religious Freedom Amendment.

The amendment is exactly like the one he pushed for last year and that was eventually defeated in the House. The bill is the latest of several that have suggested government can and should become more involved in religion. Pending in a conference committee is a bill that declares states have the right to post the Ten Commandments in all public buildings.

The Istook amendment 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.”

Opponents of Istook's bill say that if it was to become part of the Constitution, it would essentially gut the First Amendment and permit a much closer relationship between church and state. Rob Boston, assistant communications director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the bill would permit public school teachers to lead children in prayer, government funding of religious schools, and government posting of the Ten Commandments.

“Politically this is a very foolish move,” Boston said. “Istook's bill was soundly defeated last time and the dynamics in the House have not changed in a way to favor Istook. It will probably garner less support.”

Joining Istook at what he described as a “pro-family rally” was William Murray, founder of the Religious Freedom Coalition and son of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, an atheist who challenged government-sponsored prayer during the 1960s. Murray's coalition, founded three years ago, describes itself as “active in supporting embattled teachers and school districts who are persecuted for exercising their right to free religious speech.”

At the prayer rally Murray presented Istook with petitions “asking that God be allowed back in our schools.”

Boston said prayer and God are not barred from the public schools, but that the widespread belief that they are could be attributed to the “ongoing barrage of rhetoric by the political right.”

In the U.S. Supreme Court's 1962 ruling in Engel v. Vitale, a Christian prayer written by New York public school officials and required to be read every morning in public schools was found to be unconstitutional. The Engel court declared that it was not the business of public school officials to proselytize. Nonetheless, the court in Engel did say that voluntary student prayer was permitted in the public schools.

The Clinton administration issued public school guidelines in 1995 on student religious expression. Regarding prayer in the public schools, the guidelines state that “The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment does not prohibit purely private religious speech by students.” The guidelines note that “students may read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray before tests to the same extent they may engage in comparable nondisruptive activities.”