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Despite Promise, School-Prayer Measure Appears Dead

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Efforts by House Republicans to pass a "religious liberty" amendment to the U.S. Constitution appeared to be dead last week.

The House Judiciary Committee held what staff members said would be its last session to consider pending legislation, and competing proposals to provide greater constitutional protection for religious expression and school prayer were not on the agenda.

When Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich promised to hold a floor vote on a religious-liberty amendment by the Fourth of July. Now, after another Independence Day has come and gone and the 104th Congress is winding down, it is doubtful there will be any House vote, observers say. The Senate never seriously considered the issue.

The push for a religion amendment foundered not so much because of fierce opposition from civil libertarians and liberal groups, but because of disagreement among conservatives who harbored competing goals for the legislation.

One faction, led by Rep. Ernest Jim Istook Jr., R-Okla., wanted an amendment that would primarily guarantee public school students the right to engage in group prayer at graduation ceremonies, athletic contests, and other events.

The other, led initially by Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., proposed an amendment with broader language on religious expression that did not specifically mention school prayer.

The latter group's latest amendment, proposed in July by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, would also bar the government from denying religious groups "equal access to a benefit," which most observers view as language designed to open school-voucher programs to religious schools.

Promises To Keep

The disagreement among Republicans pushed the religion proposals to the back burner for the first half of this year. In July, however, GOP leaders revived the issue and said they would like to have a vote on the House floor. Whatever the outcome, the vote would have served the political purpose of putting all House members on record on the issue. ("School-Prayer-Bill Revival Tests Republican Faithful," Aug. 7, 1996.)

By early this month, however, the competing sides could not come to an agreement on a single approach, and the Hyde-Armey faction is apparently willing to take its chances in the 105th Congress, which will be seated in January.

Rep. Istook, however, called on the House leadership on Sept. 10 to schedule a vote on his language before Congress recesses early next month. "The promises given before and after the 1994 elections were clear" that the House would vote on a prayer amendment, he said in a letter to Reps. Gingrich and Armey.

Mr. Istook reminded the House leaders that his measure has 122 co-sponsors and the support of conservative groups such as Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, and the American Family Association.

'Nonessential' Opposition

But Mr. Istook managed to offend some other organizations on the right by saying no "essential" conservative groups would oppose his latest language.

The National Association of Evangelicals, a Carol Stream, Ill.-based group representing as many as 27 million conservative Christians, said in a letter to Mr. Gingrich that Mr. Istook's measure "runs roughshod over the rights of conscience of religious minorities." The group favors Mr. Armey's proposal.

The Annandale, Va.-based Christian Legal Society also favors the Armey measure over the Istook proposal.

Steven McFarland, the director of the society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom, said many conservative groups have a problem with a clause in Rep. Istook's bill that would allow the government to acknowledge the religious heritage of the nation.

"That would allow the government to favor the majority's religion in the name of acknowledgment," he said.

One especially influential conservative group, the Christian Coalition, has favored the Hyde-Armey language over Mr. Istook's. The coalition, too, appears willing to table the issue.

"They didn't even mention this issue at the Christian Coalition convention," said Daniel E. Katz, the legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, a liberal group that opposes all efforts to amend the Constitution's religion clauses.

Liberal groups and other opponents of the religion amendments are elated to see conservative groups fighting among themselves over what has at times been one of the top conservative public-policy priorities.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., a member of the House Judiciary Committee recently quipped, "The right hand doesn't know what the far-right hand is doing."

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