Despite the philosophical gulf between them, 35 organizations as liberal as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and as conservative as the Christian Legal Society (CLS) last month signed a six-page accord outlining what religious activity is permissible in public schools.
The American Jewish Congress began drafting the document last fall as a response to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's stated intentions of pursuing a school prayer constitutional amendment. Civil-liberties organizations will likely attempt to use the document to argue that a constitutional amendment related to religion and public schools now is unnecessary.
The largest U.S. church organization (Roman Catholic) and the largest Protestant group (Southern Baptist) are missing as signers of the 18-point "Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law." The Southern Baptist Convention Christian Life Commission (CLC) was courted as a signatory and even offered the option of adjusting wording.
But CLC legal counsel Michael Whitehead, noting that the majority of organizations supporting the statement identify with the political Left, says the impetus for the document was to be "a hit piece on Newt Gingrich and the school prayer amendment movement." He calls the statement "a scud missile aimed at a constitutional amendment, with a huge left wing and a tiny right wing."
"We wanted a clear, unequivocal statement that some groups who would sign this document support a school prayer amendment and others oppose it," Whitehead says. "The fact that they would not grant us that, I think, proves the point that their primary goal is to prevent a constitutional amendment."
CALCULATED RISK: Steven McFarland, who ended up playing a major role in drafting ...1
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