More than three years after Speaker Newt Gingrich promised religious conservatives that the House would vote on a school prayer constitutional amendment, it appears Republicans are about to make good on that pledge.
The House Judiciary Committee has scheduled a vote this week (expected Tuesday) on a "religious freedom" constitutional amendment sponsored by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., that goes far beyond the school prayer question.If the committee approves the amendment, which it is expected to do, a vote by the House is likely in late April or early May.
It has been 27 years since the House last voted on a school prayer amendment, and experts in the field said they know of no instance where either the House or Senate has considered an amendment aimed at the "free exercise" and "establishment" of religion clauses of the First Amendment of the Constitution that was as sweeping as Istook's proposal.
The 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."
Supporters of the amendment said it would permit "student-led, voluntary" prayer in classrooms and graduation exercises, allow a variety of other expressions of faith in public schools and workplaces, and eliminate "discrimination" against religious institutions in the awarding of government benefits, contracts and grants.
The coalition of conservative religious groups backing the amendment contends government, including schools, has grown "hostile" to religion since the court's landmark school prayer decisions of the early 1960s.
Opponents of the amendment, however, said the risk of religious oppression would be far greater with the amendment, than without it.
"This basically repeals the separation of church and state," said Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
"The real effect would be to allow religious majorities in every community to take big steps toward imposing their beliefs on everybody, whether it's prayer in public schools, putting religious symbols up in public buildings, or giving tax money to religious schools and ministries," Conn said.
Opponents also contend that current law permits much of what the amendment's backers say they want.
While most of the attention generated by the amendment has been on its likely impact on religious speech in public schools, critics who have looked at the amendment contend its potential for upending current restrictions on federal assistance to religious organizations is even greater.