Religious-Expression Amendment Clears House Panel on Party Lines

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In what supporters see as a significant step, a House subcommittee last week approved a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution designed to protect religious expression on public property, such as student-initiated prayers in public schools.

The 8-4 vote, along party lines, by the House Judiciary Committee's Constitution Subcommittee is only a first step in a lengthy process, but it shows that House Republicans and conservative groups have largely overcome their differences over the proposed text of what is being called the "religious freedom amendment."

Such squabbling kept the proposed amendment from reaching even a subcommittee vote in the last Congress. Last year, some Republicans wanted language that would primarily overturn court rulings barring voluntary group prayers by students in public schools and other public expressions of religion.

Language Differences

Others wanted the amendment to guarantee religious groups "equal access" to government benefits, a clause widely interpreted as authorizing school vouchers to be used at religious schools.

Unable to iron out their differences, Republicans were never able to bring the measure to the House floor for the vote once promised by Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. ("Despite Promise, School-Prayer Measure Appears Dead," Sept. 25, 1996.)

The measure's primary sponsor, Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr., R-Okla., reintroduced it earlier this year. Last week, Republicans appeared to be behind the latest language.

"This amendment is designed to ensure that the courts don't cleanse religion from the public arena," said Rep. Charles T. Canady, R-Fla., the chairman of the Constitution Subcommittee. "This is not about going back to the days when every [student] stood up to say the Lord's Prayer."

As passed last week, the proposed amendment reads: "To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Neither the United States nor any state shall establish any official religion, but the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. Neither the United States nor any state shall require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, prescribe school prayers, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion." This latest version includes language emphasizing that government could not establish an official religion or choose prayers for use in public schools.

Rep. Istook, who is not a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he expects the full committee to pass the amendment and to have a vote on the floor of the House by early next year. His office said the subcommittee vote marked the first time that any House panel had acted favorably on a constitutional amendment affecting school prayer. The House defeated a prayer amendment by a vote of 240-162 in a 1971 floor vote, officials said, but that measure had never worked its way through a committee.

Forest D. Montgomery, a lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals, said his group is now behind Rep. Istook's amendment. The Carol Stream, Ill.-based organization had expressed concern that earlier versions might run roughshod over the rights of religious minorities.

"We remain convinced that government is discriminating against people of faith, and that was never the intent of those who drafted the First Amendment," Mr. Montgomery said.

Democratic Opposition

Most House Democrats are fundamentally opposed to amending the Constitution to allow more religious expression in schools.

At the subcommittee session last week, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the proposed amendment "would undo 200 years of precedent preserving the separation of church and state."

He said many of the instances often cited by religious conservatives of students being disciplined in school for expressing their religious faith were "problems of misinformation" and not of law.

Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., the ranking Democrat on the full Judiciary Committee, said he doubted the proposed amendment would ever pass Congress. "The Senate hasn't done anything on this and isn't likely to," he said. "Let's not fool around with the Bill of Rights."

A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority in both houses and ratification by three-fourths of the states. It is not subject to a presidential veto.

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Web Resources
  • Read a summary of Lee v. Weisman, 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, on a Web site maintained by the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.
  • Read the opinion in Wallace v. Jaffree, the 1981 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared 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.
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