Church and State Collide in the House

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WASHINGTON: A constitutional amendment to restore prayer in public schools was defeated on the House floor late yesterday, despite the fervent support of the Christian Coalition. The attempt to undo decades of Supreme Court church-state separation might not have had a prayer in Congress, but we'll sure be hearing about it again in November.

"The timing -- at the height of the commencement season -- is obviously planned to put Democrats on the spot and on record 'against prayer,' " says TIME religion correspondent Richard Ostling. "And voters will hear all about it when the coalition hands out its 'report cards' in the fall."

Having made it onto the House floor, it's doubtful the issue will stop there. "There is certainly a widespread feeling right now, even among some of the current Justices, that the Court's decisions over the past 30 years need to reexamined," Ostling says. "But this amendment isn't going to solve those issues -- it's a can of worms."

The amendment, sponsored by Oklahoma Republican Ernest Istook, proposed to stretch freedom of religion far beyond the after-school clubs and private prayer already allowed under federal guidelines. It insisted that "the people's right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed." Worried opponents -- including plenty of religious organizations -- envision a turf war between faiths being fought on school grounds. In Istook's version of the future, they say, the most urgent religious freedom may be freedom from religion, not freedom of it.