Within days after the Republican congressional landslide election victory in November, incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced that a constitutional amendment allowing school prayer would be a priority for the new Congress.

The GOP prayer initiative has gained momentum from a proposal left on the table from the Reagan era and now being championed by Rep. Ernest Istook, a conservative Republican from Oklahoma first elected in 1992.

When Reagan proffered the amendment in the early 1980s, it foundered on the shores of a Democratic Congress, not even emerging from the Judiciary Committee. This year, conservative representative Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) will chair the House Judiciary Committee, and he is promising to consider the bill after the House has dispensed with items on the GOP's Contract with America.

Though President Clinton initially sounded receptive to the idea, he soon backed off after criticisms by his own party that he sounded too conciliatory. Clinton then warned that an amendment would be "inherently coercive."

Many conservative Christians have sought a way to return prayer to public schools since 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school-led prayer violated the First Amendment. Christian recording artist Carman has collected 750,000 signatures during the past year toward his goal of 1 million in support of a school-prayer amendment. However, the Supreme Court in the past three decades has consistently ruled mandated invocations unconstitutional, most recently in 1992 by striking down clergy-led prayer at a graduation ceremony.

NO CHRISTIAN CONSENSUS: Christian response to the recent GOP school-prayer amendment to the Constitution is mixed. Foes fear a return to a time when school officials ...

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