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School-Prayer Amendment Back in the Spotlight

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After being relegated to the background during the first five months of the Republican-controlled 104th Congress, the issue of school prayer is moving back into the spotlight.

A House subcommittee opened a series of hearings this month on religious-freedom issues, even though lawmakers and advocates are still working behind closed doors to hammer out the language of a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would guarantee the right to have organized prayers in public schools.

The proposed prayer amendment was mentioned frequently soon after the Republicans won control of Congress last November, but the new Congress was soon consumed by other issues. By April, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., even suggested that the goal of guaranteeing students' right to pray in schools could be accomplished through a federal statute rather than a constitutional amendment.

In May, however, Mr. Gingrich said he would help move to the House floor the proposals included in the Christian Coalition's "Contract With the American Family." The first item on that agenda is an amendment "to protect the religious liberties of Americans in public places."

The long-awaited nationwide hearings on the proposed amendment began this month with relatively little fanfare. The House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution held the first hearing on June 8 in Washington, with testimony from constitutional scholars.

Rocking the Boat

The hearing also featured lawmakers waging a war of words over the need for the amendment.

"It is long past time that we recognize the rights of an overwhelming majority of Americans who support public expressions of faith because they see good in it," Rep. Ernest Jim Istook Jr., R-Okla., a leading advocate of a prayer amendment, told the committee.

But Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., told Mr. Istook that he was showing disregard for the rights of minorities.

"What you are saying is that you want to amend the federal Constitution to give that control to the majority, and I can understand your desire to do that because you are a member of the majority religion and the majority race in this country," said Representative Watt, who is black.

The panel held its second hearing on June 10 in Harrisonburg, Va., when it heard from several students and lawyers who discussed incidents in which they said attempts at religious expression were trampled by school administrators.

Jason C. Nauman said that administrators at Spotswood (Va.) High School barred him from including a reference to God in his 1993 commencement address until he got in touch with the American Center for Law and Justice, the legal-defense organization founded by the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

"I was encouraged [by administrators] not to rock the boat," Mr. Nauman said in his testimony. "With a constitutional amendment providing for religious equality, there would not have been a boat to rock or a battle to fight."

The subcommittee plans additional hearings on June 23 in Tampa, July 10 in New York City, July 14 in Oklahoma City, and July 17 in Los Angeles.

Awaiting Specifics

Backers of a prayer amendment are not saying when they will introduce a specific proposal. An aide to one member of Congress involved in the discussions said the amendment would not seek to reverse U.S. Supreme Court rulings that bar school officials from choosing or leading prayers.

"Clearly, teacher-led prayer is out of the question," the aide said.

Elliot Mincberg, the legal director of People for the American Way, said the hearings have not received more attention because religious conservatives have not yet agreed on how far they want the amendment to go.

Amendment supporters "haven't agreed on language yet, and that doesn't give them a lot of focus," said Mr. Mincberg, whose civil-liberties group is part of a coalition opposing any attempt to amend the Constitution's religion clauses. "They are waiting for a consensus to emerge."

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