Ten years ago, at the height of his popularity, then-President Ronald Reagan pressed the Senate to approve an identically worded amendment, but it fell 11 votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority. At the time, many senators said they decided to oppose the amendment when 50 prominent church organizations, representing Protestants, Catholics and Jews, announced their opposition.
Among the "no" votes then were seven Republicans who will return to Capitol Hill in January. They are Sens. John H. Chafee of Rhode Island, William S. Cohen of Maine, Slade Gorton of Washington, Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, Bob Packwood of Oregon and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
A few months after the prayer amendment failed in 1984, Congress passed the Equal Access Act, which gives secondary-school students the right to pray together or read the Bible on campus before class, during lunch or after school.
"If you want genuine, unencumbered prayer by students, it is already guaranteed under the Equal Access Act," McFarland said. "We don't need to mess with the First Amendment."
But some conservative activists are saying they want to go further to allow prayer in classrooms.
"A voluntary moment of silence is not sufficient," said Gary Bauer, executive director of the Family Research Council here and a former adviser in the Reagan White House.
Both he and Reed said they want to press a constitutional amendment that would clear the way for students to lead group prayers in school.
"We haven't worked out the details yet, but we want to build something that will have the widest possible support," Bauer said.
Istook said he is confident that the prayer amendment will win a two-thirds majority in the House. He noted that opinion polls consistently show that about three-fourths of respondents say they favor school prayer.
"I think the new Congress will reflect that strong majority viewpoint," he said. "School prayer was commonplace for a couple hundred years--until the '60s. I just don't think most Americans want the Constitution being used as a weapon against their values."