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School-Prayer Bill Revival Tests Republican Faithful

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Washington

House Republicans have revived their push for a constitutional amendment that they say would provide stronger protection for religious expression, including student prayer in public schools.

But behind that straightforward goal lies a complicated struggle. As Republican members of Congress opened a new round of talks on the prayer issue, they appeared to lack consensus over what they wished to accomplish, let alone agreement on the latest proposed language, which they hope to vote on in the next few weeks.

After languishing for months, the push for a "religious freedom" amendment was revived last month by Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, the House majority leader.

Rep. Armey proposed new language to bring together supporters of competing religious-freedom proposals that were introduced last November.

His proposed amendment, HJ Res 184, reads: "In order to secure the right of the people to acknowledge and serve God according to the dictates of conscience, neither the United States nor any State shall deny any person equal access to a benefit, or otherwise discriminate against any person, on account of religious belief, expression, or exercise. This amendment does not authorize government to coerce or inhibit religious belief, expression or exercise."

The amendment itself does not mention student-led prayers, but its preamble states that its purpose is to protect religious freedom, "including the right of students in public schools to pray without government sponsorship or compulsion."

After the 1994 elections, the enactment of a school-prayer amendment became a Republican priority. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich of Georgia once promised to bring a religious-freedom amendment to a floor vote by mid-1995. But other priorities pushed the issue aside, and it lost further momentum when the competing proposals were introduced last fall. (See "Lawmakers Introduce Religious-Expression Proposals," Nov. 29, 1995.)

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At a July 23 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee's Constitution subcommittee, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., the author of one of the earlier measures, backed Rep. Armey's language.

But the author of another version of the proposed amendment--one that would provide specific protection for student-sponsored prayers--said Mr. Armey's language was too vague.

"Whatever we do should clearly and explicitly cover school prayer," Rep. Ernest Jim Istook Jr., R-Okla., said at the hearing. He referred to an evaluation of the Armey proposal by the Congressional Research Service, which concluded that it is "unlikely" the amendment would affect U.S. Supreme Court rulings on "voluntary prayer" or officially sponsored prayers at graduation ceremonies.

Carl H. Esbeck, a constitutional-law expert at the University of Missouri in Columbia who backs Rep. Armey's amendment, testified that he did not believe the majority leader's plan would lead courts to overturn the 1992 Supreme Court ruling in Lee v. Weisman, which prohibited clergy-led graduation prayers.

At least one Republican, Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, said the Supreme Court's prayer precedents need not be overturned. But others clearly believe any amendment should pave the way for the return of clergy-led prayers at school functions.

The Constitution subcommittee held the hearing on Mr. Armey's measure amid speculation that the leadership would like a vote on the House floor early next month.

Some observers have suggested that House Republicans would like to raise the profile of the religious-liberty issue to help former Sen. Bob Dole's presidential candidacy and to force Democrats to go on record for or against the measure--providing ammunition for the fall elections.

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