WASHINGTON -- Religious conservatives in Congress introduced a "religious freedom" amendment to the Constitution yesterday that would explicitly allow prayer in public schools, religious symbols on government property and tax dollars for private religious schools.
Critics immediately denounced it as unnecessary, saying the First Amendment already protects religious expression.
The amendment was introduced by Rep. Ernest Jim Istook Jr., an Oklahoma Republican, and had 116 co-sponsors, including many House Republican leaders. Istook said the leaders promised him a vote on the floor this fall. To be approved, such an amendment would require a two-thirds vote of each house and acceptance by three-fourths of the states.
The revised language reads: "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, initiate or designate school prayers, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion."
Istook said the measure was necessary because the Supreme Court had broadened the protection of free speech in many ways but limited that speech when it involved religion.
At their own news conference, several Democrats spoke heatedly against the measure.
Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York asked: "How can people who call themselves conservatives, people who don't trust government to regulate the railroads or deadly weapons, trust the government to meddle in the religious education of our children?"
He added that the sponsors were really only seeking positive ratings in the Christian Coalition voter guides.
The Christian Legal Society, a national association of evangelical lawyers that would ordinarily applaud such an amendment, withheld its support yesterday.
Steve McFarland, general counsel of the group, said the reference to "the people's right," could be misconstrued to mean the right of a legislature, rather than of individuals, and imply the involvement of government.
Pub Date: 5/09/97