G.O.P. Gains Predicted To Spur More Church-State Battles
The Republican Party's election gains will make public schools even more of a battlefield over social issues such as student prayer, participants in a forum here last week about church-state separation predicted.
"Anti-separationists have taken over the leadership of both houses of Congress," said Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a 50,000-member organization based in Washington.
"We now have a greater battle ahead of us" on issues such as school prayer and vouchers for private schools, Mr. Lynn added during an interview at Americans United's annual conference.
The conference, which was titled "Public Schools Under Assault: Why the Religious Right Must Lose," focused on ways to battle religious conservatives over student prayer and efforts to influence the public school curriculum.
The Nov. 8 election results, which saw Republican gains in many state legislatures as well as a G.O.P. takeover of Congress, came as a blow to most of the several hundred participants, who support a high wall of separation between government and religious matters. Conservative Republicans have been closely identified with efforts to allow a greater degree of religious expression in public schools.
One topic of discussion here was a promise by U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., to introduce a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would restore students' right to pray in public schools.
Representative Gingrich likely will become Speaker of the House when the new Congress convenes in January. Last week, he reiterated a pledge made before the election that if the Republicans took control of the House, he would seek to have a prayer amendment voted on before July 4, 1995.
Mr. Gingrich told The Washington Times last week he would like to "re-establish the right to teach that there is a Creator from whom your inalienable rights come."
President Clinton, in remarks made after the Americans United conference, voiced qualified support for the idea of allowing voluntary prayer in public schools and suggested a willingness to discuss a prayer amendment with G.O.P. leaders. (See related story )
Mandatory Prayers Opposed
Mr. Lynn said he believed Mr. Gingrich would follow through on his pledge.
"It would be a disaster for the basic principles of this country if we were to amend the First Amendment," he said.
A representative of the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson's legal organization, invited by Americans United to debate church-state issues, sought to dampen speculation about potentially extreme Congressional action on student prayer.
Jay A. Sekulow, the chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice in Virginia Beach, Va., said he and his organization would not support mandatory prayer in public schools. The center has aggressively supported efforts to allow voluntary student prayer at graduation ceremonies.
But mandatory prayer in schools would "trivialize all faiths," Mr. Sekulow said. He acknowledged that the A.C.L.J. would support federal legislation that bolstered voluntary student prayer.
Mr. Lynn questioned Mr. Sekulow's sincerity, saying, "I'd be flabbergasted if Pat Robertson opposed a prayer amendment."
'We Can Prevail'
Mr. Sekulow engaged in a spirited debate about church-state issues with Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington and a member of Americans United.
Rabbi Saperstein said he believed Congressional Democrats and moderate Republicans could form a coalition to defeat school-prayer measures and other agenda items of religious conservatives.
"We can prevail in these fights," he said.
"The religious right has foisted a myth on America over the last 10 years that the separation of church and state is somehow anti-church or anti-God," he added. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
Maintaining a high wall of separation is the best way to insure the government does not infringe on religious liberty, he said.
Mr. Sekulow argued that there are some who wish to keep religious people out of the political arena. "The religious right must have equal access to the marketplace," he said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, who is retiring at the end of the current Congress, appeared at the conference to receive an award for his longstanding support of church-state separation. He lamented the fact that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., would no longer chair the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee in the new Congress because of the Republican takeover of the Senate.
(See education bills, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., might not be too bad on church-state issues, Senator Metzenbaum said. "But," he added, "she is under tremendous pressure from the forces on the far right."
Elliot Mincberg, the legal director of People for the American Way, a Washington-based civil-liberties group, urged participants to keep battling religious conservatives at the local level.
"Our side can and does win," he said, citing recent elections in which conservative members of school boards in Vista, Calif., and Lake County, Fla., were turned out. "Electoral politics are important."