Religious Freedom Amendment defeated in House

Thursday, June 4, 1998

A proposed amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing government-sponsored school prayer died on the U.S. House floor today after a lengthy and often vituperative attack on federal court interpretations of the First Amendment.

In a plea to his colleagues to support the Religious Freedom Amendment, which he introduced last year, Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., said a vote against the amendment would be a vote for 30-plus years of “misinterpretation” of the First Amendment by federal justices.

The House voted 224-203 in favor of the amendment, although well short of the constitutionally required two-thirds to amend the Constitution. In order for the amendment to become part of the Constitution, it would need a two-thirds vote in each house as well as ratification by 38 states. Since its ratification in 1789, the Constitution has been amended 27 times.

The 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.”

Supporters of the amendment urged passage on two distinct grounds: First, they claimed the First Amendment had been misconstrued by federal courts. Second, they said, the amendment was needed to quell social ills — especially perceived problems in the public schools.

“All those decisions add up to not allowing prayer in school,” Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, said in support of the amendment. Instead of reading, writing, and arithmetic, Traficant said, our public schools have now been replaced with “rape, rifles, Ritalin, and run.”

Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., one of the amendment's co-sponsors, said the amendment would correct the “foolish and ill-conceived interpretations by the Supreme Court.”

At one point a change was suggested by Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., that would have removed the amendment's specific mention of God. Bishop's proposal, which would have changed the amendment from protecting the people's “right to acknowledge God” to guaranteeing their “right to freedom of religion,” was soundly defeated. “I'm trying to make sure all religious beliefs are protected,” Bishop said. “Not just those people who want to acknowledge God.”

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., however, chastised members for seeking to “generalize” the amendment.

“God is good, God is great, and we want his name in there,” Kingston said.

Kingston then implored the House to vote for the amendment “to give students the right to enjoy prayer before football games.”

Opponents of the measure questioned accusations that the religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment have been weakened or perverted by a radical judiciary.

For more than 200 years, the “Bill of Rights has protected religious freedom in this country,” Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, said. “If you vote for the Istook amendment, you vote to change the Bill of Rights.”

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., warned House members that they were considering a major step in amending the Constitution. He said the House was doing so even without “being faced with any problem.”

Boehlert added, “The U.S. remains a beacon for those seeking religious freedom.”

Outside Congress, civil rights and religious-based organizations questioned the need for the amendment.

Steve McFarland, director of the Christian Legal Society, said the vote was “more about re-election than about a reasoned promotion of religious freedom.”

Elliot Mincberg, legal director for People for the American Way, a D.C.-based civil rights group, said he was dismayed by the distortions regarding the federal court cases and religious liberty.

“Frankly, those comments were a blatant distortion of what the court has said,” Mincberg said.

“Such distortions are wrong because they cause confusion about the types of religious expression that can take place in our public schools,” he said. Actually, for those members to claim that the Supreme Court was wrongheaded about prayer in school is simply damaging to religious liberty.”

The Supreme Court in 1963 invalidated a state-written prayer, saying it violated the separation of church and state. In Engel v. Vitale, Justice Hugo Black, writing for the majority, concluded that: “It has been argued that to apply the Constitution in such a way as to prohibit state laws respecting an establishment of religious services in public schools is to indicate a hostility toward religion or toward prayer. Nothing, of course, could be more wrong.”

Rob Boston, assistant communications director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, lauded the House vote.

“The entire philosophy underlining the argument is falsely,” Boston said. “For Istook and his supporters to suggest that 30 seconds of a watered-down prayer said each day before students is going to solve every social problem in our country is just simplistic thinking.”