News Analysis: Expansion of Prayer Initiative by Religious Right Could Backfire

A calculated effort by the Christian Coalition to solicit wider support for prayer in public schools by broadening its initiative could backfire.

The group, which once advocated a limited school prayer amendment, has shifted gears. Now the goal is a broad-based “religious equality amendment,” part of the group’s recently unveiled “Contract with the American Family.”

But American Jewry, for one, is not buying it.

“We believe Congress and the American people will not be fooled by a destructive constitutional amendment with an appealing name,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

The religious equality amendment is the latest incarnation of the school prayer debate, following previous efforts to introduce school prayer or a moment of silence legislation.

The Jewish community has uniformly rejected such attempts in the past, albeit at different volumes. This latest effort also has fallen on deaf ears throughout the organized Jewish community.

This is true even among most Orthodox groups, which the Christian Coalition had apparently hoped to bring on board by incorporating some of the principles they support.

Concerned over the ramifications of such an amendment, Jewish organizations have made the issue a centerpiece of their legislative agenda for the next few months.

Working on their own and in concert with Christian organization opposed to the effort, Jewish groups are publicly mobilizing their forces to make their views known.

Although the final language of the proposal is still being hammered out by leaders of the religious right, the goals are clear: to overturn Supreme Court decisions that ban prayer at graduations, student-led prayer in schools and religious symbols in public buildings.

The amendment also seeks to give religion the same protections as speech under the Constitution. Thus, it would allow prayer at all government meetings, including gatherings of the courts and the armed forces.

Many observers say that if this amendment is adopted, Jews would be reminded daily that there are a religious minority.

“While the Christian Coalition itself purports not to want a Christian America, the amendment it proposes would do just that,” said Mark Pelavin, Washington representative of the American Jewish Congress.

The effort would “run over important decisions of religious liberty to majority will,” he said.

Since “clearly a majority of America is Christian,” localities would adopt the traditions of their communities, which, across most of America, are definitely not Jewish, Pelavin said.

Concerns over the prospects of a “Christianized America” has solidified opposition in a way rarely seen in the Jewish community on matters relating to church-state separation.

Jewish organizations have been on opposing sides, for instance, on such issues as religious symbols on public property and schools vouchers.

But the Christian Coalition has failed in its effort to splinter opposition to the amendment by including provisions some communities, such as Orthodox Jews, support.

“Orthodox Jews in general have a certain sympathy to the religious right because people bash them for their religious values,” said David Luchins, an Orthodox activist who represents the Orthodox Union of American Hebrew Congregations on the board of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

“But that sympathy doesn’t mean that we’re going to embrace their entire agenda or even parts of it, for that matter,” said Luchins, who also serves as a senior adviser to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.).

And even though the fervently Orthodox group Agudath Israel has not yet taken an official position on the forthcoming amendment, Jewish observers here widely expect it to join the general Jewish opposition.

Although its adherents believe that religion should play a larger role in American society, Agudath has “reluctantly opposed” school prayer legislation, believing that it would force Jewish students into Christian prayer, according to Abba Cohen, director of Agudah’s Washington office.

Of the religious equality amendment, Cohen said: “Right now it’s wait and see.”

Explaining the cautious approach to the religious right’s agenda, Luchins said: “Most Orthodox Jews are one generation removed from religious intolerance in Europe.”

Despite their opposition, many Orthodox Jews are remaining quiet during the debate over the religious equality amendment.

One Orthodox activist, who spoke on the condition his name not be used, said, “Right now we have the best of both worlds.

“The religious right thinks that we’re on their side and so does most of the secular Jewish community. This is not a bad place to be.”

One of the amendment’s first tests will come in early June when the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution holds the first in a series of planned hearings on the measure.

That is expected to happen after the Christian Coalition finalizes its desired language for the amendment beings to move it through Congress, under the leadership of Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.).

At least one representative of a Jewish group is expected to be invited to testify at the hearings, according to a congressional aide.

The hearing will present the first opportunity for Jewish groups and others to argue before Congress that no new laws are needed to protect religion in America.

As the debate heats up, a statement, which was spearheaded by the American Jewish Congress and outlines current law with regard to religion, is expected to take center stage.

Already sent to every member of Congress, the statement, “Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law” has been endorsed by more than 20 organizations, including several Jewish organizations that oppose school prayer as well as a handful of Christian organizations that support amending the Bill of Rights, such as the National Association of Evangelicals.

The statement seeks to clear up “common misperceptions” about what is permissible today, AJCongress’ Pelavin said.

Observers say the document is meant to counter the rhetoric such as that expressed recently by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

America’s schools are religion-free zones where “children cannot even say grace over meals,” Gingrich charged.

According to the statement, students can pray privately, read the Bible and discuss religion in schools.

They can express religious beliefs in assignments, and make religious or anti- religious remarks in a classroom discussion or presentation as long as they are relevant to the topic at hand. Students can also distribute religious material.

What is not allowed, according to the document, is vocal prayer in the classroom, a point that school prayer advocates will likely use to justify their support for the religious equality amendment.

Although public schools can not give religious instruction, they can teach the history of religion, comparative religion and scriptures as literature, the statement says.

On one point, both supporters and opponents of school prayer agree: Passing a constitutional amendment will not be an easy task.

Supporters would have to muster a two-thirds majority of lawmakers for passage — 290 backers in the House and 67 in the Senate. It would then have to be ratified by three-quarters of the states.

Recognizing the difficulty, Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition and the amendment’s loudest cheerleader, began to backpedal only days after announcing his contract, suggesting that his group would settle for legislation rather than an amendment to the Bill of Rights.

“We think an amendment or a statue, preferably an amendment, will help rectify what we think is 30 years of hostility towards faith in the public square,” Reed said.

The prospects for a simple bill stead of an amendment are uncertain. It is unclear whether hardline supporters or religious conservatives in Congress would bow to a law.

If, however, supporters are unable to pass an amendment and settle instead for the legislative path, which requires only the support of a majority of members of Congress, President Clinton would be thrust to center stage in the debate.

Although Clinton opposes amending the Constitution, presidents have no veto power over constitutional amendments passed by the Congress.

They can, however, strike down legislation. And even though Clinton supporters some of the goals of the coalition’s initiative, it is nuclear where he would come down on a law.

As recently as last weekend, George Stephanopoulos, one of Clinton’s senior advisers, said the president supporters prayer at graduations and religious symbols in public places.

“He sees no problem with having religious prayers at certain graduation ceremonies,” Stephanopoulos said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” The president also supports the display of Christmas manager scenes in public places, he said.

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