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.