WASHINGTON, Nov. 1 (JTA) — A U.S. congressman hopes to change the Constitution to allow school prayer — but it’s unclear if enough colleagues will support him.
Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), who failed in a similar attempt in 1998, circulated a letter to fellow lawmakers last week asking whether they would co-sponsor a constitutional amendment protecting students’ right to pray in school.
Jewish groups, which generally oppose the idea of school prayer, don’t expect Istook’s proposal to get far. Yet the heightened public sensitivity since the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington — Americans increasingly are invoking religion in the public sphere and have held many public prayer services — may give the proposed amendment some grass-roots backing.
Istook gained a fair amount of support when he introduced similar legislation in 1998, but Jewish groups mounted a large campaign against him. The 150 or so co-sponsors he garnered for that amendment fell short of the two-thirds of both houses of Congress needed to change the Constitution.
Opponents of the suggested amendment argue that the recent prominence of religion in public life has caused few problems, so there is no need to change the law.
“The times suggest that current law is working,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “To jump and say, ‘Therefore we need an amendment,’ just doesn’t make sense.”
However, Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who supports the “Istook amendment,” said he senses a lot of support among his constituents.
A constitutional amendment “is not a radical idea at all,” he told JTA.
DeMint, who is sponsoring legislation that he says will help schools enforce current law regarding school prayer, says an amendment makes sense in light of the events of Sept. 11.
The American Civil Liberties Union is threatening schools and schools are fearful of lawsuits, DeMint said. To go back to restricting public prayer is “absurd in light of what’s going on now,” he said.
Most Jewish groups are prepared to work hard against the amendment, but don’t expect the legislation to succeed, especially in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats.
The feeling on Capitol Hill since the Sept. 11 attacks has been to shy away from controversial legislation to focus on anti-terrorism laws and other high priority issues that enjoy a large consensus.
The war on terrorism has made people want to protect the American way of life, said Eric Schmeltzer, press secretary for Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), and a school prayer amendment would go against that.
“We want to protect civil liberties now more than ever,” he said.
Istook’s proposed amendment calls for the “people’s right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including schools.” It also says the United States “shall not compose school prayers, nor require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity.”
Already this year, three other congressional proposals have been raised to amend the Constitution to allow for some kind of school prayer.
Istook’s current proposal differs from his previous efforts by removing parts related to funding for religious groups, and focuses more narrowly on school prayer. The language is vague, which could help gather support but might also invite legal challenges.
Jewish groups are not alone in opposing Istook’s ideas. The emphasis on school prayer is troubling and an amendment to protect school prayer is unnecessary, according to Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a group that monitors religious liberties.
“The idea that prayer has been banned in public schools is a myth,” Lynn said. “Students already have the right to read their chosen sacred texts in their free time, organize after-school religious clubs and say prayers before meals or at any other time they seek spiritual guidance.”
Istook plans to introduce his current proposal in the next few weeks, according to his office.