Published Online: April 2, 1997

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Right-To-Pray Proposal Unveiled

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Washington

Republicans in Congress last week unveiled their latest proposal for a constitutional amendment designed to guarantee the right to pray and display religious symbols in public schools and other public places.

Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., said he would introduce a 52-word amendment that would guarantee people the right to pray in public, including students in public schools. But the measure would prohibit the government from composing school prayers or from compelling anyone to join in prayers.

"This amendment is the only way we can end 30 years of court decisions that turned First Amendment rights upside down," said Rep. Istook, who will formally introduce the measure after Congress returns from its spring recess. During the last Congress, competing proposals for prayer amendments divided Republicans in the House, and no measure ever reached the floor. ("Despite Promise, School-Prayer Measure Appears Dead," Sept. 25, 1996.)

Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., the sponsor of a measure that competed with Mr. Istook's proposal during the last Congress, has indicated that he will not introduce his own language this term. Mr. Hyde's measure included broader language on religious expression that did not specifically mention prayer.

Rep. Istook's language was endorsed by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., as well as by such conservative groups as the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, and the American Family Association.

Ralph Reed, the executive director of the Chesapeake, Va.-based Christian Coalition, appeared at a news conference last week with Mr. Istook and said his group will spend up to $2 million in support of the proposed amendment.

However, at least three conservative Christian organizations have signaled that they will withhold their support from Mr. Istook's approach, which they believe could be detrimental to religious minorities. The groups are the National Association of Evangelicals, the Christian Legal Society, and the Southern Baptist Convention's Christian Life Commission.

--MARK WALSH

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Web Resources
  • Letter to Superintendents. The Aug.10, 1995, statement of principles from U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley to school districts around the nation addressing the extent to which religious expression and activity are permitted in public schools.
  • Lee v. Weisman. Text of the 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared prayer at public-school graduations to be in violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
  • Wallace v. Jaffree. Text of the 1981 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared that public school "moments of silence" for "meditation or voluntary prayer" constitute the establishment of religion and thus violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
  • Engel v. Vitale. This 1962 U.S. Supreme Court decision established that an official state prayer for public schools is unconstitutional--even if the prayer is denominationally neutral and if pupils may remain silent or be excused from the room while the prayer is being recited

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