A hotly contested proposal on religious expression favored by Christian conservatives has moved closer to a vote in the House of Representatives, underscoring the roiling political debate over the place of religion in public life.
The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday approved a constitutional amendment proposed by Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr., R-Okla., that would bar government from infringing on “the people’s right to pray … on public property, including schools.”
Although the proposed amendment is a long way from becoming law, supporters and opponents of the measure both warn of dire consequences they say would result if the bill does, or does not, become law. Proponents suggest the bill is needed to stop government from snuffing out religion, and critics say the bill endangers the nation’s increasingly diversified religious landscape.
In an interview, Istook said the proposed amendment, approved by 16 Republicans over the opposition of 11 Democrats, is a response to 30 years of Supreme Court decisions that have barred or discouraged religious expression in public places based on the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.
Istook said his proposed Religious Freedom Amendment would protect such previously challenged religious expressions as putting crosses and Nativity scenes in public places, displaying the Ten Commandments in a courtroom and holding prayers during school hours.
Although public school students currently may engage in prayer and other religious activities on school grounds outside normal school hours, “Why should that be the only opportunity?” Istook asked.
“It’s a danger if we’re told we don’t have full religious freedom on public property, because if the government stops us there, it can stop us other places, too,” he said.
Randy Tate, executive director of the Christian Coalition, said Supreme Court decisions have shifted government agencies from “a policy of religious neutrality to a policy of religious exclusion. We now see the banishment of any kind of religious expression from the public square.”
Opponents of the bill are just as expansive in their criticism.
“The practical implications of this sound-bite proposal are devastating to our 200-year history of religious freedom,” said Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas. “I think the bill should be named the Religious Liberty Destruction Act.”
Dan Mariaschin, director of B’nai B’rith’s Center for Public Policy, said the proposed amendment “erodes the tradition of separation of church and state, which has been a bedrock of our American way of life.”
In contrast to Christian conservatives who say religious expression has been imperiled, Mariaschin said his organization “believes that religion is alive and well in America.”
Carole Shields, president of People for the American Way, said Istook’s bill would permit judges to recite Christian prayers in trials even though those seeking justice in the courtroom might not be Christians.
And if organized religious activities are allowed to return to public classrooms, Shields said there would be “a troubling government choice of one religion over the other,” with children of some religions being “ostracized.”
Edwards said the bill, if approved, “could expose elementary school children to prayers over (public address) systems, (including) everything from Satanic prayers to prayers from among 2,000 religious cults.”
Istook, asked about Muslim students in public schools who might want to hold Islamic prayers at the beginning of class, said his proposal “does not distinguish between different faiths. … It follows the basic rule of rotation and taking turns. People who wish to offer prayer would have the opportunity to do so.”
Tate said decisions over which prayers would be allowed in schools “should be decided school district by school district, classroom by classroom … in an orderly fashion that is not disruptive of class.”
The proposed amendment is far from becoming a constitutional reality. It needs to be approved by a two-thirds vote in the House, a two-thirds vote in the Senate and then must be ratified by 38 states.
And although the Republican House leadership has promised a floor vote on the proposal by the end of the year, Edwards said the measure’s chances of passage are “slim or none.”
Even Istook is not confident of his bill’s chances. “I’m not making any prediction of passage,” he said. “I don’t think anybody can say at this time.”
xxxx Proposed amendment The proposed constitutional amendment by Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr., R-Okla., 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.”