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School prayer proponents began battle with House bill

WASHINGTON, May 8 (JTA) — School prayer advocates have assembled the largest congressional force in their 30-year-quest to overturn Supreme Court rulings that ended organized prayer in America’s schools. U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), with more than 100 of his House colleagues, formally introduced the “Religious Freedom Amendment” at a Capitol Hill ceremony Thursday. The amendment would extend free-speech protections to all forms of religious activity, including students who seek to lead their classmates in prayer. In fact, this is the central goal of the measure, Istook said. The amendment would read: “The people’s right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. The government shall not require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, initiate or designate school prayers, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion.” Just as the religious right has made its passage the crown jewel of their legislative agenda, Jewish groups across the religious spectrum have vowed to make its defeat a top priority. The Christian Coalition has pledged to spend at least $1 million on advertising to support the amendment’s passage. But despite the large number of co-sponsors of the amendment and the expensive campaign for passage about to be unveiled, the House and Senate are likely to fall short of the necessary two-thirds approval required to pass a constitutional amendment. House hearings on the measure are expected this summer, with a vote possible in the fall. Senate advocates are deferring, at least for now, to their House colleagues on the matter.