WASHINGTON -- Delivering on a promise to social conservatives, House Republicans are considering a "religious liberty" constitutional amendment aimed at reversing decades of court rulings and government policies that they say have produced "an extraordinary secularization of American public life."
Although the proposed amendment has yet to be drafted, its purpose would be to pave the way for the return of prayer to public schools, a practice ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1962, and to allow religious-oriented displays in public places -- also banned by the courts.
The religion "bill of rights," as the amendment is known, was the subject of a hearing yesterday before the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution. The session was the first of many planned public hearings on the topic by the panel. The proposed amendment, together with a constitutional amendment banning flag desecration that was approved Wednesday by the House Judiciary Committee, effectively opens a new phase of its legislative agenda of the GOP-dominated Congress.
After a frenzied, 100-day drive that focused largely on economic issues, the Republicans now are turning to an array of potentially divisive cultural issues that may well spill over into the 1996 presidential campaign.
Their agenda includes anti-abortion initiatives, reversal of affirmative action programs, steps to reduce the role of the federal government in public education, defeat of surgeon general nominee Henry W. Foster Jr. and ending federal funding for the arts and humanities.
The issues are dear to social conservatives, who constitute a bedrock of Republican support. At the suggestion of House Republican leaders earlier this year, these conservatives have waited patiently since January while the House concentrated on the priorities set forth in its "Contract with America" campaign manifesto.
The Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, hailed yesterday's hearing as "a new beginning for religious freedom in America."
Committee Chairman Charles T. Canady, R-Fla., said that, while the government "should not be a proponent of religious dogma," for the most part, "the law has, in effect, driven religion from the public schools and the public square."
Mr. Canady and Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr., R-Okla., another advocate of the amendment, said the measure would offer people an opportunity to express their religious preferences and would leave as "a local issue" practical implementation.
"We are talking about permitting religious expression, not about compelling it," Mr. Istook said.