Prayer Advocates Prepared For Battle in Congress
t Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court's decision last week invalidating Alabama's moment-of-silence law has rekindled the vitriolic debate in the Congress over a proposed Constitutional amendment to permit organized prayer in public schools.
Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, said he will hold hearings in his Senate Judiciary subcommittee as early as this week on an amendment to allow some form of prayer in public schools.
More ardent supporters of school prayer, meanwhile, said they would press for a quick vote on the Senate floor on legislation that would strip the Supreme Court and lower federal courts of jurisdiction in school-prayer cases.
Although the White House had no comment on the Court's decision, President Reagan, who strongly supports prayer in schools, was expected to raise the issue during a political fundraising dinner in Birmingham, Ala., late last week.
The moves to return prayer to public schools face a number of imposing hurdles, even their supporters concede.
Prayer advocates in the Senate disagree over the wording of the proposed amendment, with some favoring silent prayer only and others favoring more traditional, spoken group prayers.
Last year, the Senate defeated the Reagan Administration's proposed amendment, which would have allowed vocal prayer, by a 55-44 vote, far short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage. (See Education Week, March 28, 1984.) Furthermore, an amendment, even if passed by the Senate, is certain to face an uphill battle in the House.
In addition, as recently as three years ago, Administration officials gave only lukewarm support to the proposed court-stripping legislation, saying that it raised serious questions about the separation of powers.
Victory in Defeat
In spite of the obstacles, spokesmen for religious groups said last week that the Court's decision had helped their drive to return prayer to schools by "throwing fuel on the fire."
"This decision is the spark which has started the momentum moving again for a Congressional solution to this problem," said Roy C. Jones, legislative director of Moral Majority, the organization founded by Jerry Falwell, the evangelical Christian minister and television talk-show host.
"A large portion of the American population was holding back because they felt that the Court would rule in favor of free speech and religion," Mr. Jones said. "This will cause a lot of people to say, 'Now is the time for Congressional action on this problem."'
"The decision did us a big favor," added Gary L. Jarmin, executive di-rector of Christian Voice, a lobbying group representing evangelical Christians. "It's going to help us mobilize people at the grassroots level."
Mr. Jarmin's group was instrumental last year in organizing lobbying efforts and demonstrations on the Capitol grounds prior to the Senate's vote on the Administration's prayer amendment.
Mr. Jarmin explained that a decision upholding the Alabama law, particularly in light of the Congress's passage last year of legislation permitting student religious groups to meet on the grounds of public high schools, "actually might have thrown water on the fire."
"But this decision--as stupid, sad, and shameful as it was--is going to throw fuel on the fire," he said.
Mr. Jarmin's prediction, however, was challenged by spokesmen for organizations and members of the Congress opposed to the return of organized prayer in public schools.
"The main thing working against them is that the Court's decision sanctions voluntary, silent, individual prayer," said an aide to the House subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, which has not reported a school-prayer measure since the Court declared Bible reading and vocal prayers unconstitutional in the early 1960's. "No one ever said that kids can't pray in school."
The aide pointed out that the Court's majority strongly indicated that it would look favorably on many of the 24 other state moment-of-silence laws, provided that their legislative records do not indicate the motivation was a desire to reintroduce prayer in schools. "For the possible swing votes in both chambers, having that piece there is going to make passage of a constitutional amendment less likely," the aide said.
Joseph L. Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that "it is hard to say whether the decision will help or hurt" the chances of school-prayer promoters.
"The people in Congress speaking out in favor of an amendment are the same ones who have been speaking out all along," he said. "I don't know if this will help them get any further."
According to an aide to Senator Lowell P. Weicker Jr., Republican of Connecticut and the Senate's chief opponent of prayer amendments, a recent "head count" indicated that pro-prayer advocates have lost three votes in the Senate since last year's Congressional elections.
"Our count shows us well ahead of where we were last year," said the aide, who added that Senator Weicker is prepared again to filibuster against a constitutional amendment or a court-stripping bill if either reaches the chamber's floor.