WASHINGTON, Sept. 15 (JTA) – Church-state watchdogs were caught off guard and somewhat baffled by the reintroduction this week of a school prayer amendment to the Constitution. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), who has tried unsuccessfully over the past several years to win passage of the controversial proposal, said on Wednesday he believes there is now “widespread momentum” behind the so-called Religious Freedom Amendment. The measure, defeated by the House of Representatives last year by a vote of 224 for and 203 against – well short of the two-thirds majority necessary for passage – would allow for government-sponsored prayer in schools, religious displays or symbols on public property and taxpayer subsidization of religious schools. Although it remains to be seen whether Istook can muster any additional support this time around, most political observers agree with the assessment of Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Tex.), the bill’s leading opponent in the House, who said, “I will say with absolute certainty, the Istook amendment has zero chance of becoming law in the 106th Congress.” Passage of a constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote by both the House and Senate and approval by three-quarters of the states. The reintroduction of the bill comes as lawmakers continue to advance a variety of legislative remedies pegged to the scourge of violence in schools. Earlier this year, the House adopted legislation that permits states to allow the display of the Ten Commandments in schools and other public places – a move that some lawmakers said was aimed at instilling children with traditional values. But on a broader level, religious conservatives have advanced the Istook amendment as a way to reverse 30 years of what they see as wrongheaded court decisions they claim have distorted and restricted constitutional protections of religious freedom. “We wouldn’t need a constitutional amendment, except that un-elected judges have changed the Constitution for us, bypassing the public and its elected representatives,” Istook said. “This is our only way to change it back; it’s our peaceful answer to the religious intolerance shown by activists who constantly sue to suppress religious expression.” Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, derided the effort as “unnecessary, divisive and disingenuous.” He said current law adequately addresses the religious liberty concerns cited by the bill’s supporters and pointed to a recent controversy in Mississippi – where school officials told a Jewish student he could not display a Star of David symbol and then reversed the decision – as an example of resolving religious liberty violations without altering the Constitution. “Congress governs worst when it tries to solve a problem that does not exist,” added Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “All this amendment does is subvert over 200 years of respect for the value of keeping a decent distance between the institutions of government and those of religion,” he said. The proposed amendment would add the following language to the Constitution: “To secure the people’s right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Neither the United States nor any State shall establish any official religion, but the people’s right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. Neither the United States nor any State shall 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.”
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