The Common Good
July-August 1998

Praying for Power

by Julie Polter | July-August 1998

Unholy alliance pushes more than religious freedom.

Some Christians have tried for a "school prayer" amendment to the Constitution ever since the early 1960s, when the Supreme Court banned state-sponsored religious activity in public schools. On June 4, the latest attempt—called the "Religious Freedom Amendment" by its sponsor, U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.)—was the first such measure to reach a House floor vote in 27 years. Although it failed to get the two-thirds majority required for passage, the measure and the largely partisan vote (a majority of Republicans favored the measure, a majority of Democrats opposed) holds continuing significance for the U.S. political scene.

The Istook amendment is a case study in the muddy water that gets stirred up when true believers begin playing partisan politics. According to a New York Times report, House Speaker Newt Gingrich met with Christian Coalition Chair Pat Robertson soon after the amendment passed the Judiciary Committee. Gingrich renewed a 1994 pledge to religious conservatives to bring a school prayer amendment to a House vote. Besides the Istook amendment, Gingrich also agreed to push legislation eliminating funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and approving voucher-style tax deferrals for private religious school tuition, all before the November elections.

The Christian Coalition spent more than half a million dollars on behalf of the amendment, including radio ads in the districts of targeted members of Congress. It seems likely that votes against the Istook amendment by members of Congress up for re-election will be used against them by both secular conservatives and the Religious Right during the campaign season. Which means that a matter of faith and conscience will have been reduced to just another wedge issue in the struggle for political dominance.

AS IT WAS put in the National Association of Evangelicals’ April 1998 "Washington Insight" newsletter, "There are reasons for men and women of faith to have different views about the Religious Freedom Amendment." The NAE is not necessarily opposed to the idea of some form of school prayer amendment, but does not support the Istook amendment because some of its language might actually work to change the First Amendment itself, rather than just counter judicial interpretations of it.

Many other Christian groups and denominations actively work against any amendment to address school prayer or related issues. A coalition of 56 religious and civil liberties groups—including the National Council of Churches, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the Episcopal Church, as well as Islamic and Jewish organizations—has organized to counter the Istook amendment. Despite fretting by some over the "loss" of school prayer, evidence is that the First Amendment’s prohibition of laws "respecting an establishment of religion" ably protects the rights of people of faith. As Steve Longenecker of the Church of the Brethren writes, "A history marked with [government] oppression has influenced our denomination to support the strong barriers between church and state provided by the First Amendment and to oppose modification of this balance."

Istook and his supporters say the courts have gone too far in restricting religious expression in government-related settings, to the point of being hostile toward religion. But critics note that the situations usually cited as evidence of this almost always result from a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of existing law that can be readily remedied.

The pamphlet "Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law," prepared in 1995 by 38 religious groups that span the ideological spectrum, clarifies what religious activities are allowed in schools under current law. These include: Prayer and discussion of religious views by students with their peers in a manner that is not disruptive or coercive; the teaching of the history of religion and comparative religion and religion’s impact on history and literature; student expression of religious beliefs in reports, homework, and artwork, so long as they are germane to the assignment; student participation in before- and after-school events (such as prayer groups); and equal access by student religious clubs to school facilities.

All of which is to say, forbidden school prayer is not the pressing and scary leading-edge government threat to free expression of faith that it’s sometimes made out to be. What’s really frightening is religious people making inside power deals with politicians in the name of prayer. Real faith isn’t built with campaign funds, nor can it be enforced by state-sponsored religious expression or symbols.

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