Lawmakers Introduce Religious-Expression Proposals
After a year of debate about school prayer and religious liberty, two members of Congress have introduced competing proposals that would amend the U.S. Constitution to provide greater protection for religious expression.
Rep. Ernest Jim Istook Jr., R-Okla., unveiled a proposed amendment last week that would guarantee the right to "student-sponsored prayer" in public schools.
"This does not seek to take us back to an era when teachers led students in a required prayer, but for students who desire to have prayer as a normal part of their school day, it removes the artificial barriers erected years ago by the [U.S. Supreme] Court," Mr. Istook said during a Nov. 21 news conference.
Rep. Istook's amendment states: "To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Nothing in this Constitution shall prohibit acknowledgments of the religious heritage, beliefs, or traditions of the people, or prohibit student-sponsored prayer in public schools. Neither the United States nor any State shall compose any official prayer or compel joining in prayer, or discriminate against religious expression or belief."
Meanwhile, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., introduced a religious-liberty amendment on Nov. 15 that does not mention student-sponsored prayer. His measure states: "Neither the United States nor any state shall deny benefits to or otherwise discriminate against any private person or group on account of religious expression, belief, or identity; nor shall the prohibition on laws respecting an establishment of religion be construed to require such discrimination."
Rep. Hyde's proposal closely resembles language backed in recent months by several conservative constitutional scholars, as well as by organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the Rutherford Institute.
"We are very pleased with the language of Rep. Hyde's amendment," said Greg Baylor, the assistant director of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom, an advocacy arm of the Annandale, Va.-based Christian Legal Society. "It just says that government cannot discriminate against religion."
But Mr. Istook said that Mr. Hyde's proposal "is inadequate to address the problems the public wants to address." He argued that a majority of Americans want to overturn court rulings that have barred prayers at public school graduations and voluntary group prayers by students in other school situations.
Mr. Hyde's measure "is a civil-rights amendment," Mr. Istook said. "There is nothing in there that addresses school prayer."
After Republicans took control of Congress in January, Rep. Istook was assigned to draft a religious-liberty amendment by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who himself has wavered on support for amending the Constitution.
Rep. Hyde is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which will consider the issue. Mr. Istook and a spokesman for Mr. Hyde said that the chairman intends to allow the panel to debate both proposals, but Rep. Hyde's spokesman added that only one measure would leave the committee.
In a series of congressional hearings, advocates of strict church-state separation have argued for the past year against amending the Constitution, and they denounced both proposals last week.
"It would be difficult to say either one was worse than the other," said Elliot Mincberg, the legal director for the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way. "They are both destructive of religious liberty."
Douglas Laycock, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Texas at Austin, said the proposed amendments would still leave open to judicial review the question of whether the government was authorizing or engaging in religious expression in a particular case.
"If what they want to do is end the litigation, it's not going to do that," he said.
Some observers wondered if enthusiasm for a religious-liberty amendment has died down, since the idea was debated for nearly a year before bills were introduced.
But Rep. Istook said he has 92 co-sponsors and expects his proposal to reach the House floor sometime next year.