Religious Freedom Amendment Fails in House Vote

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In the first floor vote on a school prayer measure in more than a generation, the House last week fell well short of the majority needed to pass the proposed Religious Freedom Amendment.

Rep. Barney Frank

The June 4 vote was 224-203 in favor of the measure. But that was 61 votes less than the two-thirds support required to advance an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Preceding the vote was four hours of debate focused primarily on religious expression in the public schools. Proponents of the amendment said it was needed to reverse hostility toward religious expression by the U.S. Supreme Court, lower courts, and public school administrators over the past 35 years.

Rep. Ernest Istook

The First Amendment's religion clauses have been "attacked and twisted and warped by the Supreme Court," Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., the measure's principal sponsor, argued during the floor debate.

"Prayer is not divisive," he said. "Prayer is unifying. What is divisive is to teach children not to respect the prayers of someone else."

Rep. Charles T. Canady, R-Fla., another leading supporter of the Religious Freedom Amendment, said, "There's a problem when students in this country are told they cannot carry their Bibles to school."

But opponents contended that many of the anecdotes cited by conservatives to show curtailment of religious expression were situations in which administrators or others simply failed to apply current law properly.

"This amendment seeks to solve a problem that does not exist," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. "Let's leave religion to the families and to individual choice."

Voluntary Prayers

Supporters say the amendment would restore the rights of students to have organized voluntary prayers in public schools, such as over the intercom and at graduation ceremonies. It would also guarantee that publicly funded voucher programs can provide benefits for children attending religious schools, the proponents say.

A similar amendment proposed by Rep. Istook failed to advance out of a House committee in the last Congress after Republicans disagreed over the wording.

The last time the House voted on a school prayer amendment was in 1971, when a measure designed to reverse Supreme Court decisions that prohibited official prayers in public schools was defeated 240-162.

Mr. Istook's amendment won the support of 197 Republicans and 27 Democrats. Opposing it were 174 Democrats, 28 Republicans, and one independent. The House rejected proposals from Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr., D-Ga., to soften the amendment by removing a reference to God and removing the language on equal access to benefits.

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., had promised that a prayer amendment was a priority ever since Republicans took control of the House in the 1994 elections.

Few political observers expected the amendment to win the required two-thirds majority. But Republican leaders had promised religious conservative groups such as the Christian Coalition that they would schedule a vote on the measure. Such groups have said they will include the vote on voters' guides they publish.

A constitutional amendment requires two-thirds votes in each house of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states. The Senate has expressed little interest in any similar prayer amendment.

Administration Guidelines

President Clinton used his May 30 radio address to speak against the proposed amendment, saying the First Amendment already permits truly voluntary student prayers in public schools.

"For more than 200 years, the First Amendment has protected our religious freedom and allowed many faiths to flourish, in our homes, in our workplaces, and in our schools," he said. "Clearly understood and sensibly applied, it works. It does not need to be rewritten."

The administration released an updated version of guidelines from Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley on what forms of religious expression are legally permitted in public schools.

The guidelines were first issued in 1995, and the updated version reflects a Supreme Court decision last year that struck down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal statute that protected certain religious practices from government regulation.

"Since we've issued these guidelines, appropriate religious activity has flourished in our schools," Mr. Clinton said.

Vol. 17, Issue 39, Page 22

Published in Print: June 10, 1998, as Religious Freedom Amendment Fails in House Vote
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