House nears vote on constitutional amendment guaranteeing school prayer

Wednesday, June 3, 1998

The U.S. House of Representatives, for the first time since 1971, is set to vote Thursday on a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would allow public school officials to lead children in prayer.

The Religious Freedom Amendment, which has undergone various revisions since being introduced last summer by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., would alter the Constitution to allow public school officials to endorse and sponsor prayer in the classrooms. Since the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court has said the First Amendment allows students to pray voluntarily in school but bars school-sponsored prayers.

Before a House hearing last summer regarding the wording of the amendment, Istook conceded that the amendment, if enacted, would confer upon government the power to be involved in praying and recognizing religion on public property. Istook and his supporters have criticized federal and Supreme Court decisions barring government endorsements and displays of Christianity in public forums—such as schools and courthouses.

The amendment, which the House Judiciary Committee approved along party lines, provides that no government entity shall infringe on the right of the people to “acknowledge God” on public property, including school property. It also mandates that federal or state government cannot “discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit of religion.”

Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, one of amendment's 150 co-sponsors, said the amendment is needed to help cure supposed societal ills.

“This vote will provide an opportunity for Members of the House to be put on record as supporters of religious freedoms and 'One nation under God,'” DeLay said. “Today our schools are filled with drugs and violence—it's time we made room for a little prayer instead.”

Another House co-sponsor, Rep. John Thune, R-S.D., also sees a connection between school-sponsored Christianity and improving social behavior. Thune said he supports the amendment because problems such as teen pregnancy, drugs, and juvenile crime are a result of “people's attempts to replace God with government.”

DeLay said the only way to give government the power to lead people in prayer is to amend the Constitution.

“Even if we pass religious-freedom legislation every year, the liberal establishment will petition the Supreme Court to overturn it—and they will most likely succeed,” he said. “However, the Constitution provides another way for the American people to re-establish religious freedoms; that's through a constitutional amendment.”

Liberals aren't the only folks opposed to the House amendment. Republicans and many Democrats are also. Even supporters such as the conservative, non profit groups Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition concede it is doubtful the amendment will garner the two-thirds vote in each house plus the ratification by 38 states needed to become a reality.

“It's important to have a vote on it,” said Perry Glanzer, Focus on the Family spokesman. “It's kind of a long-term thing, and it really doesn't have much of a chance.”

A spokesman for The Christian Coalition, which has mounted a massive spending campaign in support of the amendment, said he was hopeful, but not confident, the amendment would pass.

“We believe the amendment has an uphill fight,” Arne Owens said. “But we also recognize that other constitutional amendments that have been passed by states have required repeated efforts before gaining final passage.”

Rob Boston, assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said no one expects the amendment to pass.

“The vote is simply a political event,” Boston said. “The only reason the Republican majority in the House is holding the vote is to get the Christian Coalition off its back.”

Although Boston does not believe the amendment will capture the constitutionally-necessary super majority of the House, he does believe it will garner a slight majority.

“Just getting a simple majority is an embarrassment, however,” he said. “I think it is a disgrace that a majority of the House would vote to rewrite the First Amendment.”

Owens, like DeLay and Istook, said the amendment is needed because “misinterpretations of the First Amendment by the Supreme Court have resulted in a climate of hostility toward religion.”

Several states have attempted to pass school-prayer laws. Since the late '70s, Alabama's legislature has drafted and passed numerous such bills—all of which have been invalidated by federal courts.

Is the First Amendment as insensitive to religious values as Istook and his supporters claim?

Ira Lupu, a constitutional law scholar and professor at George Washington University, said he did not believe the judiciary has been hostile toward religion or that Istook's amendment would further religious liberty in this country.

“It is simply dishonest to say that the school-prayer cases of the 1960s bar students from engaging in religious activity on their own at school,” Lupu said. “Those cases were about keeping the government neutral toward religion. If Istook's amendment means that school officials will now be able to participate in praying, then it flies in the face of those cases.”

One of the first school-prayer cases that the U.S. Supreme Court decided involved a prayer composed by government officials in New York. In 1962, the high court found the state government's involvement in crafting a prayer for public school students to recite at the beginning of each school day to be an affront to the First Amendment's establishment clause.

Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority in Engel v. Vitale, noted that since the First Amendment prohibited the establishment of religion, it “must at least mean that in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government.

“The Establishment Clause thus stands as an expression of principle on the part of the Founders of our Constitution that religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its 'unhallowed perversion' by a civil magistrate.”