Istook Introduces Constitutional Amendment Promoting Religion In Public Schools

Proposal Would Bring 'Devestating Changes' to First Amendment, Religious Liberty, Charges Americans United

U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) has unveiled a constitutional amendment to allow government-sponsored religion in public schools and other public buildings.

The amendment, which Istook has labeled the "School Prayer Amendment," was introduced in the House of Representatives in December. H.J. Res. 81 has already garnered the support of 74 co-sponsors, including high-profile lawmakers such as House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (R-Okla.)

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which helped spearhead opposition to Istook's previous efforts to alter the Constitution, said the proposal is misguided.

"Istook's radical scheme would bring devastating changes to religious liberty in this country," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "This proposal would bring a bulldozer to the wall that separates church and state, destroying many of the freedoms we currently enjoy.

"Religious liberty is already alive and well in the United States, making Istook's proposal completely unnecessary," Lynn added. "Under the First Amendment, religion has flourished in this country as it has in no other. We should leave the Constitution alone."

This new effort is Istook's third attempt to change the text of the Constitution. In June 1998, House members voted 224 to 203 in favor of H.J. Res. 78, a majority but still far short of the two-thirds necessary for passing a constitutional amendment. Istook tried again a year later with H.J. Res. 66, but the amendment never received a floor vote.

In October, AU learned that the Oklahoma congressman was circulating a letter among his House colleagues seeking co-sponsors for his new proposal. At the time, Istook indicated the measure would be called the "Religious Speech Amendment." Since then, Istook has changed the amendment's name and made changes to its text.

The proposed amendment now reads: "To secure the people's right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Neither the United States nor any State shall establish any official religion, but the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. The United States and the States shall not compose school prayers, nor require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity."

AU's Lynn noted that, if added to the Constitution, Istook's amendment would bring sweeping changes to the church-state landscape. Among the likely consequences would be teacher-led prayer in public school classrooms, evangelism by clergy at school assemblies and religious indoctrination in science and history classes. The proposal would also lead to display of the Ten Commandments and other religious scriptures in schools, courthouses and other public buildings.

Istook claims that his amendment is necessary to protect the right of students to exercise religious freedom at public schools. AU's Lynn described this argument as "nonsense."

"The idea that voluntary prayer has been banned in public schools is a myth," said Lynn. "The law only forbids schools from forcing religion onto students. Parents -- not government officials -- are in charge of children's religious upbringing.

"Students already have the right to read their chosen sacred texts in their free time, organize after-school religious clubs and say prayers before meals or at any time they seek spiritual guidance," Lynn concluded. "An amendment to protect school prayer is therefore completely unwarranted."

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.