Backers of Equal-Access Bill Plan Push For Senate Vote Before Summer Break

By Tom Mirga — May 23, 1984 3 min read

Washington--Supporters of legislation that would guarantee the right of high-school students to hold religious meetings on school grounds plan to carry on their fight in the Senate despite the rejection of the bill in the House last week.

According to Senate aides, passage of that chamber’s version of the so-called “equal-access” bill, S 1059, remains a high priority for Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee.

But even though it is likely to come up for a vote before the Congress’s summer recess, and is expected to pass, its fate upon its re-turn to the House would be uncertain at best, the aides conceded.

The House’s May 15 vote on HR 5345 was 270 to 151, 11 votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed for approval. Under normal circumstances, a simple majority vote would have been sufficient for passage. The bill, however, was brought to the floor under a shortcut procedure that limited debate, prevented amendments, and required the two-thirds vote for approval.

Last week’s action marked the second time this year that a chamber of the Congress has defeated a measure involving religion and public education. On March 20, the Senate voted 55 to 44 against a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed vocal, organized prayer in public schools. (See Education Week, March 28, 1984.)

Several Representatives indicated before the vote in the House last week that they would oppose the equal-access measure not because they disagreed with it in substance but because they objected to the shortcut procedure. They said it was designed specifically to avoid referral to the Civil and Constitutional Rights Subcommittee, which is chaired by one of the measure’s chief foes, Representative Don Edwards, Democrat of California.

During debate on the measure, the bill’s floor manager, Representative Carl D. Perkins, Democrat of Kentucky, explained that he engineered the parliamentary maneuver because “it would [have taken] an act of God” for the House to have acted on the bill in the normal fashion.

“This Congress is already half over and we have two conventions ahead of us,” Representative Perkins said. “Next week, we get on appropriations. There is no way in the world we can pass this bill because of the time pressures unless we pass it on suspension today.”

“This is the only vote you are going to get on equal access,” he warned. “This is it.”

“I know most Americans believe we must raise the moral tone of our lives,” he continued. “To my way of thinking, permitting students to voluntarily meet in high schools to pray and discuss religion will go a long way toward achieving [that goal].”

Representative Edwards and other opponents of the bill countered that its passage would force school administrators to accept cult recruitment, animal sacrifice, and witchcraft in their schools or face a cutoff of federal funds.

“What is a religion?” asked Representative Gary L. Ackerman, Demo-crat of New York. “You have to know it in order to be able to give them access. Is it the Catholics, the Baptists, the Jews, the Muslims? How about the Klan or the Nazis? Would you prevent Charles Manson [from appearing] as a guest preacher for a group of 12-year-olds? These are the questions.”

Representative Don Bonker, the Washington Democrat who sponsored the bill, described such hypothetical situations as “far-fetched tales” and “horror stories.” He also denied allegations that the bill represented a “back-door” attempt to reintroduce organized prayer in public schools.

“This is not the school-prayer issue, nor is it the silent-prayer issue, nor is it even the grandson of school prayer,” he said. “All it does is say that if a school allows a Young Republicans Club or a Kiwanis Club to meet, equal treatment must be given to religious groups. ... It is a practical, constitutionally sound, and fair-minded thing to do.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 1984 edition of Education Week as Backers of Equal-Access Bill Plan Push For Senate Vote Before Summer Break