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Religious leaders voice objections to proposed amendment on prayer

March 5, 1998     CONTACT:  Joretta Purdue, Washington, D.C. (202)  546-8722     {132}

WASHINGTON (UMNS) -- State-sponsored school prayer was opposed in  statements issued here by United Methodist and National Council of  Churches executives.

The written statements were distributed March 3. The next day, the House   Judiciary Committee approved the so-called Religious Freedom Amendment  to the Constitution by a 16-11 vote. The amendment now goes to the full  House of Representatives for a vote.

School prayer is one key area addressed by the amendment. Critics fear  the measure also could have broader implications, including blurring the  lines separating church and state.

The United Methodist Board of Church and Society strongly opposes  constitutional amendments that would promote state-sponsored school  prayer, said the Rev. Thom White Wolf Fassett, general secretary of the  board.

"At best, this amendment is unnecessary as it calls for religious  liberties that are already clearly part of our everyday lives," Fassett  said. "At worse, this resolution threatens the very religious liberties  it proposes to strengthen."

Speaking for the NCC, of which the United Methodist Church is a member,  the Rev. Oliver Thomas, special counsel for religious and civil  liberties, asked Congress to leave the First Amendment alone.

"The truth, of course, is that students already can pray -- vocally or   silently, alone or in groups -- as long as they do not disrupt the  classroom or infringe upon the rights of others," he said. "They may  read their Bibles, form religious clubs, express religious viewpoints  and even share their faith as long as they do not harass or intimidate  their classmates."

"Forcing state-controlled prayer into the public schools violates the  rights of children whose families are practicing members of minority  religions," Fassett said, "and it is in clear opposition to the Social  Principles of the United Methodist Church."

He quoted those principles saying, "The state should not use its  authority to promote particular religious beliefs (including atheism)  nor should it require prayer or worship in the public schools, but it  should leave students free to practice their own religious convictions."

Thomas asserted that the proposed legislation has a financial side as  well.   "If it is passed," he said, "Bob Jones University (a Bible college in  Greenville, S.C.) would be entitled to the same public funding as the   University of South Carolina; Jerry Falwell's 'Old Time Gospel Hour' to  the same tax support as National Public Radio."

Thomas maintained that most religious bodies are against the amendment  proposed by U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla. -- including Istook's own  affiliation, the Mormon Church.

Fassett urged that "this misplaced fervor in the name of school prayer"   not be allowed to distract from the work of feeding the hungry, clothing  the naked, housing the homeless, caring for the sick and freeing the  oppressed.

A statement from Istook, issued after the committee approved the  resolution on March 4, declared, "It very explicitly does not permit  government establishment of religion."

He further said, "The proposed amendment also will force the courts to  stop misusing the language in the First Amendment, thus ignoring  American's religious freedoms."

United Methodist News Service  (615)742-5470  Releases and photos also available at 

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