Proponents of President Reagan’s proposal for a constitutional amendment to permit organized prayer in public schools--a practice which has been outlawed for 20 years--greeted the President’s announcement of the plan at the White House last week with jubilant applause and promises of political support.
“I assure you that in both houses of Congress we will work diligently for the enactment of this proposal, and I suspect millions of others throughout the country will, too,” said the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the evangelical political activist and television personality.
“Polls this year say three-fourths of the American people want prayer in public schools,” Mr. Falwell said. “Members of the Supreme Court can no longer deny the children their religious liberty of being able to pray in school,” he said, referring to the Court’s landmark decision of 1962, Engel v. Vitale, that found state-sanctioned school prayer unconstitutional, even when students choosing not to participate were allowed to leave the room.
Saying that “the law of the land has had the effect of removing prayer from our classrooms,” Mr. Reagan announced his support for a constitutional amendment to overturn it during a Rose Garden commemoration of the National Day of Prayer, as he had designated last Thursday.
“We’re in favor of [the President’s proposal] because of its symbolic importance, because it does say to the schoolchildren that we recognize the importance of meditation, of communication between a created individual and a creator,” said William Billings, president of the National Christian Action Coalition, whose membership includes 8,500 schools and 18,000 churches.
“I believe we should have the freedom to pray. The President’s way of doing it, through a constitutional amendment, is the way it should be done. It’s a great American tradition,” said Thomas P. Melady, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for postsecondary education and the former president of Sacred Heart University in Bridgeport, Conn.
A constitutional amendment permitting organized prayer in public schools has been the subject of several unsuccessful votes in Congress during the past 20 years. In the current session, 13 bills and nine proposed constitutional amendments favoring school prayer have been introduced.
The strongest support for school prayer in recent years has come from the so-called New Right, the Christian evangelical political movement. Support has also come from the Catholic Church, which, since 1973, has promoted a constitutional amendment to restore prayer in public schools.
Other religious groups have formed a coalition, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, to oppose school prayer and other aspects of federal involvement in religious matters.
“The groups who have pushed President Reagan into this ill-advised proposal want to turn public-school classrooms into Sunday-school classes where their brand of religion can be taught,” said the Rev. R.G. Puckett, a Southern Baptist minister who is executive director of the coalition.
Other Religious Groups
Representatives of other religious groups in the coalition--which includes the Lutheran Council, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the American Jewish Congress, the National Council of Churches of Christ, and the United Methodist Church--voiced their disapproval of the proposal.
Charles V. Bergstrom of the Lutheran council, who described himself as a “born-again evangelical Lutheran Christian,” said that “personal prayer is what Jesus said we should go into our own private rooms to do. It does not have any place in public schools, but it does belong in our homes and churches.”
“The President’s proposal is really divisive politics, and I regret that that’s the way that prayer is being used. I’m not encouraged when religious entertainers and political fundamentalist coalitions support that kind of public prayer in schools, because they’ve been attacking the public schools for years,” he said.
“Truly voluntary prayer has never been and could not be banned from the public schools,” said John W. Baker, general counsel to the Baptist committee.
“What was banned was the use of the coercive power of the state to promote the religion of whichever religious group was dominant in a particular school district. In banning such use of state power, the Court advanced the cause of religious liberty,” he said.
The President’s proposal was greeted with criticism from Willard H. McGuire, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union. “No matter how well-intentioned proponents of school prayer might be, the fact remains that such activity is contrary to the fundamental tenets of our country,” he said.
Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association, said his organization took no position on school prayer. ''As a practical matter,” he said, “the public schools could benefit greatly if the President’s attitude toward the problems of educating disadvantaged children were as positive as it is toward school prayer.’'
In announcing his support for a school-prayer amendment, which requires endorsement by two-thirds of the members of both chambers of Congress and three-fourths of the state legislatures, President Reagan was carrying out a promise he made during the 1980 campaign.
“In recent years, well-meaning Americans, in the name of freedom, have taken freedom away” from students who wish to pray together in the schools, Mr. Reagan said.
“The law of the land has had the effect of removing prayer from our classrooms. The current interpretation holds that the minds of our children cannot be free to pray in public schools,” Mr. Reagan said.
“No one must ever be forced or coerced or pressured to take part in any religious exercise, but neither should the government prohibit” religious exercise, the President said.
In striking down an ecumenical school prayer approved by the New York State Board of Regents for recitation in public schools, the Supreme Court in the 1962 Engel case held that the First Amendment prohibited “official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as part of a religious program carried on by the government.”
The Court has since reaffirmed its finding several times. But it held, in School District of Abington v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett, that “the observance of a moment of reverent silence at the opening of class” may not violate the First Amendment. Since that 1963 ruling, silent meditation after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance has become a common practice in public schools.
In a recent ruling, the Court struck down a Louisiana law that permitted students to pray together. The ruling has been defied by one school system in that state, the Rapides Parish schools. Officials there say they will continue to permit students to pray in groups.
A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 1982 edition of Education Week as President Reagan Backs Constituional Change On Prayer in School