After about five hours of debate, the House of Representatives on June 4 failed to approve by the required margin a controversial constitutional amendment strongly backed by Christian conservatives that would have allowed organized prayer in public schools. The vote was 224 to 203 in favor of the measure--61 votes shy of the two-thirds vote necessary for passage of a constitutional amendment. Twenty-seven Democrats and 197 Republicans voted in favor.
While there was little doubt that the measure would not gain the two-thirds margin, the first House vote on a prayer-related constitutional amendment since 1971 produced more negative votes than even the most ardent opponents had hoped for. "This was a real surprise," said Joseph Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "This was a tremendous defeat for the Religious Right. We were thinking that anything over 175 would be good. It was a remarkable victory." Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League, another opponent of the measure, said the margin was large enough "to ensure this issue won't be back in Congress in the near future."
But Representative Ernest Istook (R., Okla.), the amendment's author, insisted that just gaining a simple majority constituted a victory. "Many people have decided that political correctness is more important than freedom of speech or freedom of religion," he said. The measure, formally known as the Religious Freedom Constitutional Amendment, was a priority of Christian conservatives and House Republican leaders. They argued that passage was needed to reverse three decades of Supreme Court decisions they say have weakened the nation's religious freedoms, including the outlawing of state-sponsored organized prayer in public school settings. They also pointed out that the 87-word amendment specifically enjoined government from establishing "any official religion" and did not "require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity."
However, mainline religious organizations and civil libertarians opposed the measure. They maintained that the amendment would breach the constitutional wall separating church and state and inevitably lead to the imposition of majority religious views on members of religious minorities. They also said the amendment was unnecessary because students already may pray individually in school, read religious texts during study hall or other free-time periods and assemble in groups lot religious activities before or after regular school hours while in public school buildings.
The text of the proposed Religious Freedom Amendment read as follows: "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. Neither the United States nor any state shall require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, prescribe school prayers, discriminate against religion or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion. …