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Focus on Issues: Proposed Religion Amendment Faces Wide Array of Vocal Critics

The author of a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow for prayer in public schools is being challenged on all sides.

Calling the First Amendment an impediment to religious freedom, Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) and his supporters urged Congress this week to alter the law of the land through a “Religious Freedom Amendment.”

The so-called Istook amendment would give the go-ahead to government subsidy of religion, prayer in schools and other forms of religious expression on public property.

While it has the support of the House leadership and about 140 cosponsors, the proposed measure faces tough critics both on and off Capitol Hill.

Amending the Constitution requires the approval of two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of the states.

Despite the uphill battle ahead, Istook was firm in his testimony before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution on Tuesday.

“We seek a constitutional amendment because the courts have left us no other choice,” Istook said, referring to court decisions in recent years that he says have been hostile toward religion.

Istook said his measure would correct those rulings that have prohibited silent prayer in public schools, graduation prayers, and the ability to post the Ten Commandments on public property.

The amendment would add the following language to the Constitution:

“To secure the people’s right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: 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, prescribe school prayers, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion.”

But Istook was challenged not only by fellow lawmakers, but also by church- state watchdogs, who were out in full force.

“Simply put, the proposed amendment to the Constitution is not only unnecessary, it is also tremendously hazardous,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“Religion is a deeply personal issue,” Lynn testified at the hearing. “Any effort to create a religion amendment to the Constitution will undoubtedly upset the delicate balance between church and state that has enabled religion to flourish in our nation for over 200 years.”

Lynn’s view was echoed by several Jewish groups, most of whom are adamantly opposed to a constitutional amendment.

The amendment serves “no necessary purpose,” Robert Rifkind, president of the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement submitted to the committee.

“The religious expression concerns that it ostensibly addresses are already protected by current law,” he said, noting, for instance, that students are already entitled to pray and public employees may engage in religious worship.

The proposed measure also met forceful protest from Democrats on the panel.

“The amendment we are now considering is touted by supporters as the restorer of religious freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Rep. Robert Scott (D-Va.), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee.

“I don’t understand what you’re trying to do,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D- Calif.). “You can’t do better than the Constitution, which has guaranteed us freedom of religion.”

Several lawmakers expressed concern that if the door is opened to prayer in schools, equal access would demand that all religious practices — Satanic worship included — be accommodated.

But Istook also had his supporters on the subcommittee.

Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), a cosponsor, called the amendment “a common sense proposal that will result in more religious freedom.”

Even among Istook’s supporters, however, there were expressions of some concern.

The measure’s main Democratic co-sponsor, Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) continued to voice support for the amendment, but backed away from its explicit reference to God.

Bishop said that reference should be replaced with a more general reference to “the people’s right to freedom of religion according to the dictates of conscience.”

Some Jewish activists saw encouraging signs in Bishop’s misgivings.

“One of the things we felt all along was that as members of Congress and the public begin to focus on what this would really mean, support for it will drop off,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Meanwhile, the idea of using Istook’s measure as a vehicle to restore protections for religious practice voided by a recent Supreme Court decision received scant attention at Tuesday’s hearing.

Some supporters of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which the court struck down as unconstitutional last month, have called for a constitutional amendment as a way to counter the ruling.

At a hearing before the same committee last week, lawmakers indicated that they would seek legislative remedies rather than a constitutional amendment as a way to counter the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Istook suggested a adding section to his proposed amendment that would guarantee support for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

No one at the committee hearing followed up on that proposition Tuesday.

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