CHURCH & STATE | Our Constitution Lacks a School Prayer Amendment—For That, You Can Thank These Champions

In yet another sop to his white evangelical Christian base, President Donald Trump announced in January that his administration was issuing guidelines on religious activity in public schools.

Trump made a big deal about the guidelines, even holding an event at the White House featuring students who claimed their rights were violated. (They weren’t, but that’s another column.) The guidelines themselves are based on previous documents issued by Bill Clinton’s administration in 1995 and the George W. Bush administration in 2003.

Trump’s guidelines do push the envelope in some areas, but at the end of the day this is an issue for the courts—and so far, the Supreme Court has been pretty clear that school-sponsored, coercive forms of religious worship have no place in public education.

All of this talk about school prayer got me curious about efforts to override the courts by passing a School Prayer Amendment to the Constitution. Since 1962, the year the first ruling on school prayer was handed down by the Supreme Court, there have been four major efforts to pass such an amendment.

As I reviewed this history, I was struck by one thing: every time one of these amendments surfaced, our side had a champion (or champions) in Congress who, often at no small political risk, put a stop to them. These folks tend to be unsung today but shouldn’t be, considering what they did for us. Let’s take a look back:

Becker Amendment, 1964: A number of school prayer amendments were introduced in Congress in the early 1960s in response to the Supreme Court’s rulings in the school prayer and Bible reading cases from 1962 and ’63. A proposal introduced by US Rep. Frank J. Becker (R-NY) became the leading one.

Our champion was a dapper New Yorker in horned-rimmed glasses, US Rep. Emanuel Celler (D), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Celler was skeptical that an amendment was needed and worried about the effect it might have on children of minority faiths.

“Whose prayer will it be?” Celler asked. “Who will determine the prayer—the state, the county, school board…or the precinct level? If it’s done locally, will not the majority denomination determine the prayer?”

Celler used a variety of tactics to delay a vote on the amendment, but he was under considerable pressure. The US Junior Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution in favor of the Becker Amendment, and a number of popular celebrities at the time, among them Dale Evans, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry, advocated for it. Famous evangelist Billy Graham was also on board.

Celler allowed hearings on the measure, which lasted several months intermittently. Stretching out the debate turned out to be a good strategy. Witnesses argued among themselves about what constituted “non-denominational” prayer, and Celler
was able to rally religious groups that opposed the amendment. He also challenged witnesses who made outrageous statements, such as linking the Supreme Court rulings to communism.

As time passed, emotions over the high court rulings cooled, and the push for the amendment fizzled. Becker was unable to secure a floor vote. He decided not to run for reelection in 1964. When a similar amendment with new sponsorship resurfaced in the House in 1971, Celler again took the lead in stopping it.

Dirksen Amendment, 1966: US Senator
Everett Dirksen (R-IL) on March 22, 1966, introduced a school prayer amendment that called for “voluntary participation by students or others in prayer.” Dirksen had earlier in the year given a speech during which he said, “I’m not going to let nine men say to 190 million people, including children, when and where they can utter prayers.”

Our champion this time was US Senator Birch Bayh (D-IN), chairman of a Senate subcommittee on constitutional amendments. In August, Bayh agreed to allow six days of hearings on the proposed amendment. The debate focused on what constituted “voluntary” prayer and whether children would feel pressured to pray in schools.

Bayh suspected that Dirksen didn’t have the votes to pass the amendment, but he wanted to avoid an unpleasant, drawn-out fight on the floor of the Senate, so he introduced a non-binding sense-of-the-Senate resolution stating that voluntary prayer was already legal in public schools.

“[I]t is the sense of the Congress that nothing in the Constitution or the Supreme Court decisions relating to religious practices in our public schools prohibits local school officials from permitting individual students to engage in silent, voluntary prayer or meditation,” the resolution read in part. It also affirmed that the president has the right to issue proclamations for holidays such as Thanksgiving.

Bayh had employed a classic maneuver: his resolution gave some wavering senators cover by allowing them to vote for a pro-prayer statement—albeit one that didn’t actually do anything. When a vote on the Dirksen amendment was held, it fell nine votes short of the super-majority required for passage.

Reagan Amendment, 1982-84: Ronald Reagan campaigned in 1980 in part on a promise to restore “voluntary prayer” to public schools. On May 6, 1982, Reagan held a White House event to reiterate his support for an amendment. Although no language was unveiled at the time, the White House did issue a briefing paper about the issue. Alarmingly, it stated, “[S]tates and communities would be free to select prayers of their own choosing. They could choose prayers that have already been written, or they could compose their own prayers. If groups of people are to be permitted prayer, someone must have the power to determine the content of such prayers.”

The amendment that eventually emerged had strong support from religious right groups. TV preacher Pat Robertson, for example, was an enthusiastic backer.

Hearings were held in the Senate sporadically during the latter half of 1982 and into 1983. Again senators got bogged down in what constituted “voluntary” prayer. Our champion during this battle was US Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, one of the last of a vanishing breed of liberal Republicans. Weicker spoke powerfully against the amendment and even threatened to filibuster it. Senate GOP leaders struck a deal with him—there would be one vote on the amendment as introduced, with no follow-up votes on different versions. The vote took place on March 20, 1984. The final tally was 56-44, which was eleven votes short of the two-thirds required.

Weicker paid a high price for his bold stand. In 1988 he was narrowly defeated by Democrat Joseph Lieberman who, during the campaign, criticized Weicker for opposing school prayer.

Istook Amendment, 1995-98: The Republican Party swept the November 1994 mid-term elections, and US Rep. Newt Gingrich
of Georgia became speaker of the House in 1995. Playing to the GOP’s evangelical base, Gingrich asked Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK) to work on a school prayer amendment. Istook, in turn, recruited several religious right groups to help draft it.

But the religious right got greedy. Its attorneys decided to draft a much broader amendment, one that would attack church-state separation head-on. They spent a few years arguing among themselves and then emerged with a proposal that would have not only authorized official school prayer but also permitted the government to display sectarian symbols and extend taxpayer funding to religious schools and other institutions. It was misleadingly named the “Religious Freedom Amendment.”

After much maneuvering, the amendment reached the House floor on June 4, 1998. Debate lasted more than six hours and featured the usual far-right bromides about school prayer. At one point, Istook asserted, “As prayer has gone out of schools, guns, knives and gangs have come in.”

Our champions this time were a collection of House members, among them Reps. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA), Chet Edwards (D-TX), Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), Amo Houghton (R-NY), and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), all of whom blasted the proposal on the House floor. At one point, Scott asked a pointed question: “How safe will our schools be when children begin fighting over which prayers will be said or which religious expressions should or should not take place before each class day?”

The Istook Amendment garnered a simple majority in the final vote of 224-203—but that was sixty-one votes shy of the number needed for passage. After the vote, Edwards summed up the feeling of many separation advocates when he said, “I’m ecstatic that we have preserved the Bill of Rights and its protection of religious freedom. But I cannot celebrate the fact that a majority of House members were willing to vote against the first sixteen words of the Bill of Rights.”

Our Constitution remains uncluttered by a dangerous amendment that would coerce children to recite prayers and engage in other religious activities in public schools. We can thank some brave political leaders for that.