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Campaign for prayer amendment begins with tales of `persecution’

WASHINGTON, May 22 (JTA) — The Christian Coalition this week kicked off a nationwide campaign to build momentum for a school prayer amendment to the Constitution. Gathered at a Capitol Hill rally for what they billed as a `Religious Freedom Celebration,’ more than 100 supporters vowed to make a vigorous push for the passage of the so-called “Religious Freedom Amendment,” sponsored by U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.).
Their push came as church-state watchdogs continued to deride the measure as unnecessary and dangerous. “Our goal is to deluge Capitol Hill with over a million petitions, telegrams and phone calls and get a vote on the “Religious Freedom Amendment” to the Constitution before the 1998 election so that the American people know where every member of Congress stands on this issue before they go to the polls,” said Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition. Flanked by representatives of racially diverse conservative religious groups, including a black church choir, Reed said, “There is no issue that will take a back seat to seeing a day when every child in America can bow their head and begin their day in a public school with prayer.” Istook said his amendment will protect religious expression on public property by putting an end to 30 years of what he termed wrong-headed court rulings that have “hijacked” the First Amendment. “The First Amendment was intended to be a shield for our religious freedom and our religious liberty,” Istook said. “They have taken the shield and they’ve made it into a sword to attack religious expression, to censor it, to suppress it. “We are going to beat that sword back into the shield it was intended to be.” A similar bid to amend the Constitution during the last Congress became mired in disputes over language, and the current campaign faces another uphill battle. The Istook amendment has acquired nearly 120 cosponsors, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas). But most observers believe the measure will fall far short of the two-thirds majority necessary for passage. Istook said he hopes to hold hearings this summer and bring the measure up for a vote this fall. There is no movement in the Senate for such an amendment. At the rally, the Christian Coalition brought forward several people it called “victims” of religious discrimination, including a wheelchair-bound girl who was told she could not read her Bible on a school bus, and a student who received an “F” on a school paper she wrote about Jesus. One Jewish observer said the conservative Christian lobby put on an extravagant show that poses new challenges for opponents of the measure. “It would be a mistake to underestimate the impact of a 30-second sound bite” featuring children “in front of a giant American flag telling stories of religious persecution,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. “We cannot simply rely on amicus briefs and tried and true legal arguments to meet the challenge of that kind of a presentation. We must do more.” Other opponents of the amendment were quick to point out that most of the cases the Christian Coalition held up as examples of religious discrimination were settled under existing law. “The truth is students are free to engage in a remarkable array of private religious expression during their free time,” said Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “In the rare instances where a public school official has made a mistake about a student’s religious rights, the problems can be corrected by a simple phone call or letter.” Meanwhile, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, renewed an appeal to Reed this week to make good on a pledge he made two years ago to actively support U.S. aid to Israel. In a recent letter to Reed, Saperstein wrote that he was “profoundly disappointed” after “waiting two years for any public word from you in support of foreign aid to Israel.” Reed, who has announced he is stepping down from his post to create his own campaign consulting firm, said in an brief interview Thursday: “I’ve already publicly made clear my support for aid for Israel and I’ll continue to do that.” Asked whether he intended to press the issue as Congress begins deliberations over the U.S. foreign aid budget, Reed said, “I’ll be in touch with leaders in the Jewish community about the best way to go about it.”

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