Church leaders from a dozen denominations stood shoulder to shoulder outside the Supreme Court on Monday to oppose a constitutional amendment allowing organized prayer in public schools.
"I am a born-again, Bible-bred, Texas-born Baptist preacher," said the Rev. James M. Dunn, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. "That's precisely why I oppose any government meddling in religion."
The proposal, added Mark J. Pelavin of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, "demeans religion, threatens our most precious rights and distracts America from addressing its most pressing problems."
The House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution will hold a public hearing today on a new school prayer amendment proposed by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.
Armey's resolution proposes to change the First Amendment "to further protect religious freedom, including the right of students in public schools to pray without government sponsorship or compulsion."
It also would prohibit the federal and state governments from denying anyone "equal access to a benefit, or otherwise discriminate against any person, on account of religious belief, expression, or exercise." That has been interpreted as mandating taxpayer support for religious programs.
The election-year push to amend the Constitution seeks to overturn 30 years of Supreme Court decisions, including one that struck down a state law authorizing officially sponsored classroom prayers. However, the court has never held that a student has no right to pray in school.
"The Armey amendment is a wolf in sheep's clothing," asserted the Rev. David Ramage Jr., a Presbyterian and president-emeritus of McCormick Theological Seminary. "In the name of religious freedom, it would undermine religious liberty for all Americans. It invokes freedom of conscience to justify an attack on the First Amendment, the greatest guarantor of freedom of conscience the world has ever known."
Ramage said the Republicans are trying to rush the amendment through the House by September so that the Christian Coalition group can include House members' positions in its voter guide.
"Will (coalition leader) Ralph Reed call it (a no vote) a vote against religious freedom?" Ramage asked. "A vote for discrimination against people of faith? A vote against God?"