President’s School-Prayer Amendment Will Face Vote in Senate This Week

By Tom Mirga — March 21, 1984 3 min read

Washington--After 12 days of debate and some complex parliamentary maneuvering, the Senate tentatively agreed last week to vote March 20 on a Reagan Administration-backed constitutional amendment allowing organized, vocal prayer in pubic schools.

The chamber was poised to act on the proposal, SJ Res 73, last Wednesday but was blocked from doing so by a single senator who complained about the procedure under which it was brought up.

The snarl created by the complaint was so complex that the Senate’s chief opponent of school prayer, Senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr., Republican of Connecticut, at one point offered a pro-prayer amendment of his own in an attempt to regain control of the debate.

The parliamentary tangle also forced Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah and a strong school-prayer supporter, into the unusual position of having to ask the Senate to table a proposed constitutional amendment almost identical to the one that he drafted.

Unusual Compromise

Under a compromise worked out by both supporters and opponents of school prayer early last week, the Administration-backed version of the proposal was to have been voted on under an agreement that would have prevented senators from raising points of order, engaging in debate, or bringing up appeals, mo-tions, or amendments.

The proposal states, in part, that “nothing in the Constitution shall be construed to prohibit individual and group prayer in public schools or other public institutions.” It also says that no one can be forced to participate in prayer and prevents governments from composing prayers for use in schools.

Senator Weicker and his supporters agreed to allow the vote because they believed they had the votes to defeat it, according to lobbyists and Senate aides.

Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr., Republican of Tennessee, Senator Hatch, and other prayer advocates said they supported the move because they thought President Reagan deserved an “up-or-down” vote on his proposal. Observers also pointed out that senators who support silent but not organized, vocal prayer would have been placed under considerable pressure to support the Administration’s proposal in a non-debatable yes-or-no vote.

Compromise Derailed

The delicate compromise, however, was derailed by Senator Alan J. Dixon, Democrat of Illinois and a supporter of silent prayer. The rules governing the debate at that point allowed him to block the vote simply by raising an objection.

Senator Dixon complained that the agreement to limit debate “narrow[s] a major debate in this country affecting hundreds of millions of people to a single question.”

While holding the floor, Senator Dixon demanded the immediate consideration of his own proposed amendment, which would allow individual or group “silent prayer or silent reflection,” and would prevent the federal and state governments from denying access to school facilities to student religious groups.

His proposal was almost identical to one reported to the Senate floor by the chamber’s Judiciary Committee. The primary author of that amendment was Senator Hatch, who was instrumental in orchestrating the move for the up-or-down vote.

“If we do not do something about the school-prayer issue, divisions and tensions will continue in this country on this now 20-year-old controversy,” said Senator Hatch in opposition to the Dixon proposal. “I genuinely believe that the way to do it is to let the President have his vote. Those of us who can support that, support it. Those who can’t, can’t.”

When debate resumed on Thursday, Senator Hatch “reluctantly” moved to table the Dixon amendment. Later, Senator Baker substituted Senator Hatch’s tabling motion with one of his own to spare the Senator any embarrassment. That motion was approved 81 to 15.

Then, to the surprise of many observers, Senator Baker announced that he planned to reschedule the vote on the Administration’s proposal for Tuesday, March 20, explaining that “certain senators have said that they are not ready to proceed at this point.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 1984 edition of Education Week as President’s School-Prayer Amendment Will Face Vote in Senate This Week