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Conservative Group Urges Amendment to Reaffirm Religious Freedom

July 24, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A constitutional amendment is needed to reaffirm guarantees of religious liberty because students are routinely denied the right to hold religious meetings on public school campuses, a conservative group says.

A Republican amendment clarifying students’ right ``to pray without government sponsorship or compulsion″ would help fight misperceptions that have fostered hostility toward religion, Jay Alan Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, told a House panel Tuesday.

``Religious people must be allowed to express themselves and worship without threat of government interference or intolerance,″ he said. ``Religious people must be allowed to proclaim their faith in the public square, their own private businesses or where they go to school.″

But opponents said the last thing religious Americans need now is a revised First Amendment. Education is the answer, the Rev. Oliver S. Thomas, special counsel for the National Council of Churches, told the House Judiciary constitution subcommittee.

``The amendment before you is fraught with problems,″ Thomas said. ``So much so that to pass this measure would diminish _ not expand _ the exercise of religious faith.″

Rep. John Conyers, R-Mich., accused Congress’ Republican majority of being too quick to tinker with the Constitution.

``Right now students can pray in class, can read Bibles in school, can say grace before meals, can pray before tests and, of course, can study religion,″ he said. ``Schools aren’t looking for help with religion. They’re looking for help with funding and safety. That’s how Congress can help.″

The proposed amendment, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, seeks to clarify the role of religion in public life.

``Our problem is not with the Constitution itself, but with courts that interpret the First Amendment in a way that undermines rather than protects religious freedom,″ Hyde said. As examples, he cited ``public school teachers who accept reports on witches, forbid students from writing reports on Jesus.″

Hyde said the Housing and Urban Development Department once asked a religious group to change the name of its homeless shelter, the St. Vincent de Paul Shelter, because it received federal money for blankets and cots.

``This is simply madness,″ he said. ``And it is madness that is eroding the foundations of American democracy.″

But Thomas said requiring equal treatment and prohibiting discrimination based on religion could take away some of the exemptions religions enjoy today, he said. Conscientious objectors could be required to serve in combat, for instance, he said.

``A guarantee of equal benefits could easily be interpreted to include education. The result would be the largest unfunded mandate in history,″ he said. Religious colleges could be eligible for the same government funding state colleges receive, he said.

``It is no secret that many of the proponents of this amendment would try to use it to obtain public funds to send their children to private religious schools,″ Thomas said.

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