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Religious Equality Amendment Revived by Republican Leaders

July 24, 1996
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In a move that signals the return of a nightmare for Jewish civil liberties advocates, congressional Republicans have launched a new push to amend the Constitution to allow for organized school prayer.

House Republicans, who are advancing prayer in public school under the banner of a “religious equality amendment,” say they intend to bring the measure to a vote in coming weeks.

Jewish groups and a host of other religious and civil liberties watchdogs are decrying the move as an assault on religious liberty and the constitutional separation of church and state.

Many Republicans in Congress have been seeking to pass such an amendment since last year, but efforts became bogged down by disputes about language.

The new measure, introduced by House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), has supplanted similar proposals offered by Reps. James Istook (R-Okla.) and Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), whose competing amendments had split religious conservatives.

Hyde, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, has thrown his support behind the new amendment.

At a Tuesday hearing of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, he said the amendment is aimed at “repairing damage done by the Supreme Court.”

“Our problem is not with the Constitution itself,” Hyde said, “but with courts that interpret the First Amendment in a way that undermines rather than protects religious freedom.”

The latest effort comes largely at the urging of the Christian Coalition, which hopes to include a list of how each member voted in the 45 million voter guides it plans to distribute to 100,000 churches before the November election.

The measure is now on a fast track, and the Republican leadership wants Congress to vote on the amendment by early September.

Jewish groups have consistently opposed efforts to bring prayer into America’s classrooms by tampering with the First Amendment. Several Christian groups also oppose the amendment.

“The current debate is a struggle that will determine whether we will continue our 220-year tradition of religious liberty and church-state separation that has worked so well, or whether we will adopt an ill-conceived, unnecessary and dangerous amendment that will radically transform our government and religious institutions and the very fabric of our society,” Rabbi A. James Rudin, interreligious affairs director of the Amerian Jewish Committee, testified before Congress.

The amendment proposes changing the Constitution “to further protect religious freedom, including the right of students in public schools to pray without government sponsorship or compulsion.”

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking Democratic member of the House Judiciary Committee, said the amendment’s backers appear to have forgotten that “the Constitution is not the statutes — it’s the guiding document.

“All my constitutional-amending colleagues, I ask to cool it,” he said.

Observers doubt that the House can muster the two-thirds majority needed to approve the amendment. Passage of a similar amendment in the Senate is also unlikely, observers said.

Nonetheless, Jewish activists have launched an all-out lobbying campaign to defeat the amendment. Most Jewish groups, across the religious and political spectrum, are on record opposing such an amendment.

At a rally this week on the stairs of the Supreme Court, a broad coalition of religious groups united to oppose the proposed amendment.

“One can only conclude that the supporters of the amendment wish to take the momentous step of adopting a constitutional amendment so that they can falsely portray themselves as defenders of God,” said Joel Levy, co-chairman of the American Jewish Congress’ Commission on Law and Social Action. “God, we are confident, will take care of Himself.”

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