House school prayer vote today is largely a case of symbolism Congress reluctant to act, but fears the power of the religious right


WASHINGTON -- Twenty-seven years ago, Madalyn Murray O'Hair was a reviled figure in much of America, a nonbeliever whose legal challenge helped banish prayer from public schools. Her son William was an atheist graduate of the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute whose anti-prayer cause forced a dramatic but futile vote in the House on a constitutional amendment to put prayer back in schools.

Mrs. O'Hair has since disappeared. Her son is now a devout Christian. And the House will vote today on a school prayer amendment for the first time since that emotional day in November 1971 -- this time with no drama, no mass movement and no real chance of passage.

Today's vote is symbolic of changing times. Street-level political agitation has all but disappeared, but the political and economic power of the religious right is great enough to force congressional action -- even if that means going through the motions.

"Evangelical Christians are much more active politically, but on the other hand, our culture has become a much more secular society," said Michael Farris, a conservative Christian and president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, who is skeptical about the proposed amendment. "The middle has emptied out."

The 85-word amendment, pushed by Oklahoma Republican Rep. Ernest Jim Istook Jr., states: "The people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed."

For the amendment's supporters, passage has taken on near-messianic import. The Supreme Court in 1962 and 1963 ruled government-prescribed and officially established "voluntary" prayers in New York, Baltimore and Pennsylvania public schools to be unconstitutional. Since then, the schools have descended to "godlessness," said William J. Murray, the former Baltimore schoolboy who is now head of the Government Is Not God Political Action Committee.

"On Thursday, [Congress] will cast a vote, and a decision will be made," proclaimed religious singer Carman yesterday on Capitol Hill as he delivered 1 million signatures for the amendment.

The Christian Coalition has spent more than $500,000 on lobbying, advertisements, direct-mail campaigns and phone banks -- vowing to punish at the polls those who vote against the amendment. Gary Bauer's Family Research Council also strongly favors the amendment. James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, whose radio shows and publications have hundreds of thousands of followers, threatened to bolt the Republican Party if Congress failed to bring the amendment up for a vote.

Yet almost no one, not its most ardent supporters or its loudest detractors, expects the amendment to garner the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

"The fact is, any time you are trying to amend the Constitution you might expect to have the vote more than once before you get the necessary two-thirds," said Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, the second-ranking Republican in the House.

In 1971, the tally was 240-162, 28 short of victory but a strong majority nevertheless. This year, "the question for me is whether it will even get a majority," Farris said.

"It's an interesting time," said Terri Schroeder, of the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the amendment. "While the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council do have the ability to pull certain strings, when push comes to shove, you will see a lot of people are not going to fold."

The reasons for the strength of the opposition are numerous. Some moderate Republicans say they are angered by what they called the heavy-handedness of the Christian conservatives. Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut has called Dobson's list of demands "blackmail."

Also, student-run voluntary prayer and Bible-study groups have begun to crop up in nearly one-fourth of all public schools, thanks to new guidelines issued by the Department of Education in 1995 -- and reissued last week -- that set strict parameters on what religious expression is and is not permitted.

"A lot of people don't buy into the fallacy that there is not religious liberty or religious freedom in the schools," Schroeder said.

What's more, the religious and conservative communities are badly split. Many mainline groups like the United Methodists, the Episcopal Church and the American Jewish Committee strongly oppose the amendment.

"What is occurring here is that a significant religious minority is undergoing severe religious persecution -- evangelical Christians, Southern Baptists, Pentecostals. Their form of worship is much more public," said Arne Owens, spokesman for the Christian Coalition. "That's why you hear silence from mainline Protestant denominations that come from traditions where religious expression remains private."

Pub Date: 6/04/98

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