Senate Debate, Lobbying on School Prayer Continue

By Tom Mirga — March 14, 1984 6 min read

Washington--Despite an all-out lobbying effort that included candlelight vigils and testimonials from prominent Americans, supporters of a proposed constitutional amendment allowing voluntary spoken prayer in public schools conceded last week that they lacked the two-thirds majority needed to win approval for the measure in the Senate.

But, they added, a revised version of the amendment allowing silent as well as vocal prayer might win them the votes they need to move the proposal out of the Republican-controlled upper chamber and into the Democratic-controlled House.

The push on behalf of the amended version of the proposal was part of a weeklong, high-pressure lobbying effort aimed at nullifying the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1962 decision declaring organized voluntary prayer in public schools unconstitutional. Several supporters of the proposed amendment said they were heartened by the Court’s decision last week to permit a town in Rhode Island to display a Christmas nativity scene. They said the decision indicates that the present Court may be inclined to lower the “wall of separation” between church and state.

Prayer Vigil

The Senate began debate on the school-prayer issue for the first time in 12 years on March 5 while some 2,500 school-prayer supporters gathered in the rain on the Capitol’s west front to pray for the amendment’s passage.

That same night, the House met in an all-night session devoted solely to the topic of school prayer. The comments of the 50 Representatives involved in the 19-hour event, whose attempts to bring the issue to the House floor have been stymied by the chamber’s leadership, were broadcast live across the nation on C-SPAN, cable television’s public-affairs channel.

President Reagan, who launched the current campaign in several recent speeches calling for school prayer and considers it a key item in his “social-issues” agenda, continued to focus on the topic in addresses last week. During a speech in Columbus, Ohio, before the National Association of Evangelicals, he said, “I am convinced that passage of this amendment would do more than any other action to reassert the faith and values that made America great,” and he noted again that “God should never have been expelled from our classrooms.”

Amendment’s Provisions

The proposal before the Senate, S J Res 73, states: “Nothing in the 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.”

Vote counts by lobbying groups and Senate offices last week indicated that this version of the proposal was supported solidly by only 48 senators and to a lesser degree by about 10 others--far short of the 67 votes necessary for approval of a constitutional amendment.

In order to attract more votes to their cause, Senate supporters of school prayer, led by Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr., Republican of Tennessee, began drafting a compromise version of the amendment late last week.

Among the changes reportedly under consideration is the addition of language authorizing both silent and vocal prayer. Several senators, including Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah and chairman of the chamber’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, support an earlier version of the amendment that would authorize silent prayers only and would require school officials to provide access to school facilities to student religious groups.

Also said to be under consideration is a provision requiring school officials to set aside a space for children who choose not to participate in prayer services.

‘Endurance Contest’

Early in the week, Senator Baker said he did not know how long it would take the chamber to complete action on the matter. He added, however, that he would not allow debate on the amendment to be turned “into a physical endurance contest.”

“I do not believe that the Constitution deserves to have an amendment to it considered dependent on how strong and how sleepy members of the Senate may be,” he said.

But opponents of the amendment, led by Senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr., Republican of Connecticut, promised to fight for an “extended debate” that could last until June 1.

Senator Weicker, while careful to avoid the term “filibuster,” explained during a press conference that he would not be willing to “overturn 193 years of American history ... in a week to 10 days.”

He also warned President Reagan and his conservative supporters not to urge voters to consider senators’ votes on the amendment when casting their ballots in November’s Congressional elections.

Noting that Article VI of the Constitution prohibits the use of religious tests as a qualification for public office, Senator Weicker said, “If anyone tries to enforce such a test, I will come down hard on them, even if they are a Republican.”

Theological Debate

“I think that there is a tendency on our part to view an issue as being right against wrong, or in this case, the godly versus the ungodly,” he said. “That, in fact, is not the case, and there is a theological argument on the other side. There is a biblically rooted argument on the other side, and it is no trivial matter to those who feel strongly.”

Much of the debate on the amendment last week centered more on issues of theology than of law.

For example, Senator Jesse A. Helms, Republican of North Carolina, speaking in support of the amendment, cited Mark 10, in which Jesus is quoted as saying, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the Kingdom of God.”

“Now I am not a clergyman, and I do not pretend to be, but from these passages it seems clear to me that Jesus had a special place for children both in His heart and in terms of salvation,” the Senator said.

“He specifically directed that the children be brought to Him,” the Senator continued, “and He did not want them hindered in their approach by adults.”

Senator Hatch, also speaking in favor of the amendment, added that as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, he understands religious discrimination and would oppose any amendment that “would ignite religious narrow-mindedness or intolerance.”

“However, I do not believe that school prayer contributes to religious intolerance; indeed, I believe just the opposite.” he said.

“It is no coincidence, in my opinion,” he added, “that this country grew to be the most religiously tolerant in the world at the same time that prayer was a common part of the country’s educational regimen.”

Although opponents of the amendment “may call this display foolish, there is an ultimate reality that brings us here,” said Representative Mark D. Siljander, Republican of Michigan, during the House discussion.

"[Our] common vision [is] that there is a universal creator, that there is a universal truth,” he said. “There is a God that created man and woman and child and created the heavens and the universe. There is a God that we ought to be held accountable to, and that God is not man but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

“It is obvious that in public schools young people can do just about anything they choose to do,” he continued. “They can talk about the reproductive process from beginning to end. They can talk about the dialectic-materialist philosophy from beginning to end. They can talk about a revolution. [They] can talk about genetic engineering. [They] can talk about evolution. But just dare allow the young people, at their own option, oh, dare them just to pray, and all of a sudden it is a federal issue.”

Debate on the amendment is expected to continue through the remainder of this week, according to Senate aides.