Republican congressional leadership is endorsing a religious freedom amendment proposed by Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), but evangelicals are divided over its merits.

In a February 27 letter to National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) President Don Argue, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and House Majority Leader Dick Armey urged the organization to pass a resolution at its March convention endorsing the Istook amendment.

"To maximize the success of reaching our common goals, we urge you to endorse," wrote Armey and Gingrich. Gingrich has promised passage of a school prayer bill in the last two sessions of Congress. "This is the intended vehicle for this effort and no competing legislation is anticipated."

While the NAE is generally supportive of school prayer, officials criticize specifics of the Istook legislation. The NAE rejected the GOP's strong-arm tactics. "We will decide the issue when we're ready, not when the Republican party puts pressure on us," Argue told CT.

LONG BATTLE CRY: The 1962 Supreme Court decision Engel v. Vitale barred audible school-sanctioned prayer.

For the past 15 years, the GOP has repeatedly—and unsuccessfully—raised the issue of school prayer as a point of legislative appeasement to evangelicals. Some believe Republican leadership has touted the notion of a constitutional amendment protecting school prayer because they know there is little prospect of the necessary two-thirds of the states approving it.

President Reagan began introducing school amendment proposals in 1982, but with a Democratic majority in Congress they never made it out of committee.

Even with Republicans in control of Congress since January 1995, no proposal has been able to muster enough support for consideration.

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