Clinton Says He Might Back School-Prayer Bill

By Mark Pitsch — November 23, 1994 4 min read


President Clinton last week expressed qualified support for voluntary prayer in public schools, and said he is willing to discuss with House Republicans their intention to offer an amendment to the U.S. Constitution assuring students the right to pray.

During a news conference in Indonesia, where he was attending an economic conference, Mr. Clinton said prayer in schools should be allowed if it is not coercive.

His remarks, which were not available from the White House in transcript form but were widely reported, mirror statements he made last April during a televised “town meeting.”

At that time, he said, “If you’re praying at a graduation exercise or a sporting event, it’s a big open-air thing, and no one’s being coerced.” Mr. Clinton also said then that he agrees with the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Engel v. Vitale, which outlawed organized prayer in public schools. (See Education Week, 04/13/94.)

But last week the President apparently addressed for the first time the idea of a constitutional amendment. Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who is likely to be the next Speaker of the House when the new g.o.p. majority takes office, has pledged a House vote on such an amendment by July.

Mr. Clinton said he “would be glad to discuss [such an amendment] with them,” according to The Washington Post. “I want to see what the details are. I certainly wouldn’t rule it out; it depends on what it says.”

William A. Galston, a domestic-policy adviser to Mr. Clinton, said that he meant to express a willingness to consider not a constitutional amendment, but a bill that would expand prayer rights without violating the Constitution. As to whether the President would propose prayer language, Mr. Galston said, “Stay tuned.”

Outreach Effort

Mr. Gingrich announced last week that Rep. Ernest Jim Istook, R-Okla., will be responsible for drafting credible prayer language and mustering support for it.

A constitutional amendment must pass by two-thirds votes in both the House and Senate and then be ratified by legislatures in three-fourths of the states.

“There’s a lot of coordination that needs to be done,” Mr. Istook said in an interview. He said the g.o.p. outreach effort will extend to state legislatures, school boards, and civic groups, and may include regional hearings.

On Oct. 7, Mr. Istook submitted a resolution that could serve as a model amendment. It states: “Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit individual or group prayer in public schools or other public institutions. No person shall be required by the United States or by any State to participate in prayer. Neither the United States nor any State shall compose the words of any prayer to be said in public schools.”

“I’m not going to predict victory at this point, but I think it has a good chance,” Mr. Istook said.

But Perry Zirkel, a professor of education and law at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., said he doubted such language would be approved by Congress.

“Politically, I would be very surprised if it was passed,” he said. “It seems just like an emotional, backlash reaction.”

Mr. Zirkel said Congress would be more likely to enact a law allowing some form of school prayer that would later come under scrutiny in the courts.

Lengthy History

In its landmark 1962 ruling, the Supreme Court struck down a New York State law that required daily recitation of state-approved prayers. Later rulings prohibited reading of the Bible in schools and prayer at graduation ceremonies.

In 1984, the House narrowly defeated a constitutional amendment to allow prayer. A similar amendment failed in 1971.

Congress has also considered several bills that addressed prayer in schools. During the Reagan Administration, it enacted laws guaranteeing the right to pray silently throughout the school day and passed the Equal Access Act, which requires districts to allow religious groups to hold meetings in school buildings outside of school hours on the same basis as other groups.

But Congress rejected bills that would have allowed vocal prayers and stripped the High Court of its jurisdiction over school-prayer cases--both of which would have faced constitutional challenges.

This year, the House and Senate overwhelmingly endorsed language in two education bills to cut off federal aid to districts that do not allow voluntary, “constitutionally protected” prayer. But that language was weakened by conference committees that reported the underlying bills. One law would cut off funding to districts that violate court orders upholding voluntary prayer; the other prohibits the use of federal money to prevent voluntary prayer.

While seven states have enacted laws allowing some form of school prayer, ratifying a constitutional amendment would be difficult, said Aaron Bell of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But some groups opposed to school prayer expressed outrage at Mr. Clinton’s comments.

“Instead of taking his cue from Newt Gingrich, President Clinton should be standing firm for the constitutional rights of all schoolchildren,” said Arthur J. Kropp, the president of the People for the American Way Action Fund, a civil-liberties organization.

But Mike Russell, a spokesman for the Christian Coalition, noted polls indicating a majority of Americans support school prayer. “I don’t look at it as an extremely controversial issue,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 1994 edition of Education Week as Clinton Says He Might Back School-Prayer Bill