Prayer Warriors: Exploiting the Sept. 11 Terrorist Attacks, Rep. Ernest Istook and His Religious Right Allies Are Launching a Crusade for a School Prayer Amendment
Boston, Rob, Church & State
Rep. Ernest J. Istook is angry because kids can't sing "God Bless America" in public schools.
The Oklahoma Republican is so concerned about the matter that he insists it's necessary to amend the Constitution to allow school-sponsored religious activity in classrooms. On Oct. 25, Istook announced that he will soon re-introduce a school prayer measure that he calls the "Religious Speech Amendment."
The Bill of Rights must be changed, Istook argues, because the people are demanding increased religiosity in government and public life since the horrific terrorist attacks on America Sept. 11. In a "Dear Colleague" letter that has been circulating in the House of Representatives, Istook asserts that the time is right to amend the Constitution to allow for official school prayer.
"On September 11, Members of Congress stood in solidarity on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building and sang `God Bless America,'" Istook wrote. "Yet America's school children for years have been restricted from similar expressions of faith.... It's time for students and all other Americans to enjoy the same freedom we exercised on the Capitol steps."
There is one flaw in Istook's argument, however: Since Sept. 11, numerous media outlets have reported instances of public school students all over the nation singing "God Bless America" -- and no one has tried to stop them.
Critics suspect that Istook may simply be trying to take advantage of the national mood to promote closer ties between religion and government. His amendment isn't a new idea -- it's a revamped version of a proposal he first submitted in 1996. That amendment, then called the "Religious Freedom Amendment," faced a House vote in June of 1998. The final tally was 224 in favor to 203 against, 61 votes short of the two-thirds majority required for passage of a constitutional amendment.
This year, Istook has removed one provision in the amendment guaranteeing religious groups access to tax funds. The measure 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, or 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, or prescribe school prayers."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State quickly announced its opposition to the Istook proposal. AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn noted that the amendment is unnecessary since students already have the right to pray in schools.
"This constitutional nightmare would grievously damage religious liberty in this country by blurring the line between church and state," Lynn said. "This is offering a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. Religious speech is already alive and well in this country, guaranteed by the First Amendment."
Lynn charged that Istook's claims about censorship of "God Bless America" are specious and are designed to link the amendment to the resurgence in patriotism around the nation. Lynn, an attorney and a minister, said it's highly unlikely that a federal court would declare the singing of "God Bless America" in a public school unconstitutional. Like the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance or "In God We Trust" on money, patriotic songs that mention God are regarded by the courts as examples of "civil religion," ceremonial references to generic religion that in most cases don't violate the Constitution.
But having said that, Lynn added that no public school can coerce or require students to sing "God Bless America," just as they cannot require students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Istook's revamped amendment is perhaps the most prominent church-state development in the post-Sept. …