Commentary

The Danger of Beguiling Half-Truths: The First Amendment Framers on Prayer

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The controversy over prayer in the public schools continues. Last week, President Reagan, in his State of the Union address, once again endorsed a proposed constitutional amendment that would permit such prayer, despite the Supreme Court's ruling to the contrary 21 years ago in Engel v. Vitale.

Many advocates of school prayer attack the Court's Vitale decision on the grounds that, in the case, the Court misinterpreted the intentions of the First Amendment framers. W. Brevard Hand, a federal district judge in Alabama, in upholding that state's school-prayer laws last month, said that the Supreme Court "erred in its reading of history" in the Vitale case.

The constitutional wall of separation between church and state is a myth, Judge Hand said in his Jan. 14 opinion, because the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution was intended by the First Amendment framers to prohibit only the federal government, and not the states, from establishing religion. (See Education Week, Jan. 26, 1983.)

He further reasoned, as have other prayer-amendment supporters, that "the framers of the First Amendment never intended the Establishment Clause to erect an absolute wall of separation between the federal government and religion." Their intent, he contended, was only to prohibit the government from establishing a national religion like the Church of England. The Rev. Jerry Falwell goes so far as to say that school prayer was "in the intent and mind of the First Amendment framers."

In general, the pro-prayer argument runs like this: The First Amendment says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The phrase "an establishment of religion" is singular, so it obviously refers to a single church. Thus, if the government aids several or all churches in promoting prayer in public schools, the framers would not have objected. Right?

Wrong. In all five states that still authorized "an establishment of religion" in 1789, the term clearly meant that several churches could share in tax funds for the support of their religious beliefs. The South Carolina Constitution of 1778 could not have been more explicit: "The Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed ... the established religion of this state. ... All denominations of Christian Protestants ... shall be esteemed and regarded in law ... as a church of the established religion of this state."

The framers of the First Amendment knew very well that this was what they intended to prohibit at the federal level.

The principal framer of the First Amendment was especially aware of this meaning of an establishment of religion. In 1784, when the religious conservatives of Virginia tried to revive the idea of multiple establishment in a tax bill designed to support "teachers of the Christian Religion" (and not confined to Protestants), James Madison fought it with all his power. He argued forcefully that an assessment on all citizens to pay teachers of religion--even a minister of one's own denomination--was clearly "an establishment of religion." He was able to marshal the liberal religious forces of Virginia to defeat the assessment bill and, instead, to pass Thomas Jefferson's historic statute for religious freedom in 1786.


The debates in the first Congress over the wording of the First Amendment are particularly illuminating. Under Madison's leadership, the House version that was sent to the Senate on Aug. 21, 1789, read: "Congress shall make no law establishing religion." In the Senate, several attempts were made to narrow the prohibition to any law "establishing one Religious sect or Society in preference to others" or "any particular denomination of religion in preference to another."

All such proposals were defeated in the Senate, and a conference committee headed by Madison came up with the phrase that was finally approved by both Houses, and ratified by the states in 1791.

True, the First Amendment did not restrict the states as it restricted Congress; it is also true that the House formally approved an article of amendment that would have prohibited the states from infringing on the equal rights of conscience, trial by jury, or freedom of speech or the press. The more conservative Senate would not agree, and thus postponed a positive civil-rights role for the federal government until the time of the 14th Amendment and Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century.

Lyman Bryson, an outstanding proponent of public-policy education, often said that the test of civic literacy in democracy is the ability of citizens to "distinguish between the significant truth and the plausible falsehood or beguiling half-truth."

To argue that the framers did not "intend to preclude prayer from the public schools" is a beguiling half-truth. In 1789, public schools as we know them today did not exist; they really began in the 1830's and 1840's. In 1789, the closest things to modern public schools were the town schools in the very New England states that still had "establishments of religion," and thus it was (of course) deemed lawful for the state to promote religious observances.

The New England Primer and McGuffey's Eclectic Readers certainly taught children to pray, but by the 1840's, Roman Catholics and others were objecting to such prayers in the public schools because they promoted Protestant doctrines. Thus began the process of trying to design public schools that could serve all the people yet not infringe upon the "equal rights of conscience" that Jefferson and Madison had fought for so stoutly.

The historical consensus by the Supreme Court is that equal rights of conscience can best be served by the public schools' refraining from promoting such religious activities as Bible reading and prayers.

Fortunately, Madison and his liberal colleagues in the House won the debates of 1789-91, and the Supreme Court, by and large, has correctly interpreted their intentions. The question is whether they will continue to win the debates of the 1980's, or whether their version of the First Amendment will in turn be amended--or suspended--by politicians and citizens who follow "beguiling half-truths" or "plausible falsehoods" rather than "significant truth."

Vol. 02, Issue 19, Page 24

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