Nov 08, 2001

The U.S. House of Representatives voted today to support a resolution encouraging public schools to set aside prayer time for students.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the non-binding resolution, which passed 297-125, is unnecessary and recklessly encourages school officials to ignore constitutional law.

"As a Christian minister, I believe in prayer, but it's not the job of Congress to tell our children when and how to pray," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Parents, not politicians, have the responsibility to instruct our children about matters of faith."

The measure (H.Con.Res. 239) was introduced by Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), a freshman lawmaker with strong ties to the Religious Right. The resolution expresses the "sense of Congress that schools in the United States should set aside a sufficient period of time to allow children to pray for, or quietly reflect on behalf of, the Nation during this time of struggle against the forces of international terrorism."

AU's Lynn said the resolution ignores the American principle of church-state separation. The measure not only promotes school prayer, he noted, but even instructs students what topic they should pray about.

"In some countries," Lynn said, "the government tells people when and how to pray. I wish Congress understood that in America, individuals make religious decisions for themselves.

"Public school officials should ignore the House's advice," added Lynn. "For decades, federal courts have mandated that the state not promote prayer in schools. With that in mind, schools that act on this resolution may find themselves in court."

Lynn noted this is the second time in less than a month that the House has devoted time to endorsing non-binding measures regarding religion in public schools. On Oct. 17, House members voted unanimously to endorse a resolution expressing support for the display of the words "God Bless America" in the nation's public schools.

"At this time of national crisis, the last thing we need is political bickering over prayer and religion," Lynn concluded. "This resolution invites divisiveness when we are striving for unity."

The non-binding resolution expresses only the "sense of the Congress," and does not force schools to set aside time for prayer.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., which has led the opposition to congressional attempts to require government-sponsored prayer in public schools. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.