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To Jews’ Dismay, Amendment on Religious Equality Surfaces

Nearly one year after congressional Republicans pledges to pass a constitutional amendment on religious equality, the issue has formally hit the legislative calendar.

But as the division deepens among proponents of an amendment that could bring prayer back to the public schools, Jewish opposition remains steadfast and united.

While much of the federal government was shut down over budget issues last week, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), outflanked school-prayer advocates in Congress when he introduced his own version of the controversial amendment.

Hyde’s version of the measure, known as the religious equality constitutional amendment, does not explicitly mention school prayer.

But it would allow voluntary prayer in public schools as well as public funding of parochial schools and other forms of government-sponsored religious expression.

Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, rushed to the floor to beat the Republicans’ point man on the issue, Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla).

Istook disagrees with Hyde’s version and a draft of his own measure – yet to be introduced – explicitly calls for school prayer.

When discussion of a constitutional amendment first began after last year’s elections, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) tapped Istook to write an amendment to be introduced over the summer. But the deadline slipped as advocates ran into trouble drafting the measure.

Hyde’s amendment came as a surprise to many activists. After months of inaction, Istook was on the verge of introducing his own measure, Capitol Hill aides said.

Fearing that the measure would be too “radical,” Hyde introduced his own, an aide involved in the drafting said.

The sparring between the Istook and Hyde camps means little to Jewish activists who have launched an aggressive campaign to fight the measure – in whatever form it ultimately takes.

Jewish groups are not wholly united on the issues surrounding the role of religion in the public arena – some Orthodox groups, for example, favor public funding for parochial schools. However, Jewish groups across the board have vehemently voiced their opposition to amending the constitution for any religious purpose.

“In the end it does not matter whether the amendment calls for school prayer or not,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel of the American Jewish Committee’s Washington office.

“It’s the intent of the Congress” and the lawmakers, he said, “that courts would look at.”

At least two-thirds of the Senate and House of Representatives must pass the measure in order to send it to the states for ratification. In order to become law, at least 38 states must ratify a constitutional amendment.

Although President Clinton has expressed opposition to the idea of a constitutional amendment, the president has no official role in constitutional amendments and has no veto power over the Congress’ action.

On Nov. 16, the morning after Hyde introduced his amendment, religious and civil liberties activists swung into action to fight the measure in the halls of Congress.

The amendment “will ultimately allow the government to coerce, control and compromise religion,” the Coalition to Preserve Religious Liberty declared in a letter hand-delivered to all members of Congress asking them to oppose the Hyde amendment.

“We should not trade the delicate balance inherent in the First Amendment for the blunt cut of `religious equality,'” said the coalition, which includes several Jewish organizations.

“If there is one touchstone of church-state relations in the United States, it is that no American should be made to feel a religious outsider by their government,” the letter states.

The 50-member coalition includes organizations across the American Jewish political and religious spectrum, including the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot. Other members include; the B’nai B’rith, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti- Defamation League and the National Jewish Democratic Council.

As opponents began their campaign to derail the amendment, supporters began to line up behind it.

Among organizations of the religious right, the Center for Law and Religious Freedom said it “fully supports” the Hyde amendment. The National Association of Evangelicals has also embraced the measure.

But the largest such organization, the Christian Coalition, has withheld its endorsement.

A Christian Coalition official said his organization, which made a constitutional amendment on religious equality the center piece of its Contract with the American Family, would wait until next month’s hearings on the issue to weigh in behind a specific measure.

Hyde plans to hold hearings on the measure in December.

But the Christian Coalition official said, “Let there be no doubt that we stand behind the principle of the Hyde amendment 100 percent.”

Advocates admit that the amendment’s future is far from certain.

“To say the battle will be uphill is a dramatic understatement,” a congressional aide working to pass the measure said.

The full text of Hyde’s amendment reads:

“Preamble: Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States in order to secure the unalienable right of the people to acknowledge, worship and serve their Creator, according to the dictates of conscience.

“Text: Neither the United States nor any state shall deny benefits to or otherwise discriminate against any private person or group on account of religious expression, belief or identity; nor shall the prohibition on laws respecting an establishment of religion be construed to require such discrimination.”

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