What Happened to the School Prayer Amendment?
At the beginning of the 104th Congress, there was public excitement surrounding a promised congressional effort to protect public religious expressions. That anticipation began in September 1994 with Representative Newt Gingrich’s speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, dc. The soon-to-be Speaker of the House issued a scathing indictment on the Supreme Court for its flagrant disregard for the Founders’ constitutional intentions and for the Court’s rewriting of the First Amendment, making it hostile to religious expressions-especially school prayer. Mr. Gingrich assured voters that if he were given a conservative Congress, a constitutional amendment to reinstate school prayer would be brought to a vote. When the conservative shift took place two months later, Speaker Gingrich promptly assigned Representative Ernest Istook (OK) to draft a constitutional amendment to reinstate school prayer. Rep. Istook then invited the leaders of several religious liberties groups, including WallBuilders, to assist him in the task.
The Work Begins
When the first meeting of our coalition convened in February 1995, many felt that this was the long-awaited golden opportunity to restore voluntary school prayer as well as to protect public religious acknowledgments (e.g., displays of the Ten Commandments, Christmas scenes, city seals, and mottos). Work proceeded, and, during June and July, the House Subcommittee on the Constitution held well-attended hearings across the nation to receive testimony on how religious liberties had been violated or public religious expressions denied. Polls also confirmed that public support for protecting school prayer was growing. For example, in 1985, 69 percent of Americans supported school prayer, but by 1991, that number had increased to 78 percent; and in 1988, 68 percent of Americans supported a constitutional amendment to reinstate school prayer, but that number had risen to 73 percent by 1994. Such numbers affirmed that we indeed had the public’s support and were moving in the right direction. Consequently, at our meeting in October 1995, draft language for a constitutional amendment was proposed by Congressman Istook which eventually became HJ Res. 127:
To secure the people’s right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Nothing in this Constitution shall prohibit acknowledgments of the religious heritage, beliefs, or traditions of the people, or prohibit student-sponsored prayer in public schools. Neither the United States nor any State shall compose any official prayer or compel joining in prayer, or discriminate against religious expression or belief.
The Opposition Emerges
Amazingly, certain members of our coalition voiced their belief that protecting school prayer and public acknowledgments was a liability rather than an asset; they felt that those issues should not receive explicit protections. (One may only wonder how they envisioned writing a school prayer amendment which did not protect school prayer!) These dissenting members coalesced themselves into a separate working group and persuaded Representative Henry Hyde (IL) to sponsor their preemptive version (HJ Res. 121) which stated:
Neither the United States nor any State shall deny benefits to or otherwise discriminate against any private person or group on account of religious expression, belief, or identity; nor shall the prohibition on laws respecting an establishment of religion be construed to require such discrimination. We opposed the inadequate protections of this version because, given the current hostile tendencies of the courts, we believed that any amendment must not only be far-reaching but also precisely defined to include specific protections for school prayer and public acknowledgments.
This version received only 18 Congressional co-sponsors, while Representative Istook’s version received 115. The grass-roots organizations supporting Representative Istook’s approach included WallBuilders, Concerned Women for America, Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, the Christian Action Network, Americans for Voluntary School Prayer, and the American Family Association. Those supporting the other approach included the Christian Legal Society, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptists, and the Traditional Values Coalition. (Christian Coalition expressed its preference for the Hyde language but agreed to accept the Istook wording.)
In January 1996, as the public and private debates over these two approaches continued, an important new study was released by The Luntz Research Companies. It revealed that at that time, 74 percent of Americans supported a constitutional amendment with a specific guarantee for voluntary prayer in school, and 73 percent supported constitutional protections for public religious displays and acknowledgments. Despite this new evidence, the Christian leaders of the four dissenting groups continued to oppose specific protections for these expressions; the result was a deadlock.
A New Attempt
In March 1996, in an effort to break the deadlock, Majority Leader Dick Armey offered a compromise which included all the elements from both sides. His version stated:
To secure the people’s right to serve God according to the dictates of conscience: Neither the United States nor any State shall prohibit acknowledgments of the religious heritage, beliefs or traditions of the people. Neither the United States nor any State shall prohibit student-sponsored prayer in public schools, nor compose any official student prayer or compel joining therein. The United States shall not deny benefits based upon religious expression, belief or identity.
While this language was acceptable to those of us supporting the Istook approach (it contained explicit protection for school prayer and public acknowledgments), it was unacceptable to the other groups. The impasse remained.
In July 1996, the Hyde supporters introduced a new proposal (HJ Res. 184) which stated:
In order to secure the right of the people to acknowledge and serve God according to the dictates of conscience, neither the United States nor any State shall deny any person equal access to a benefit or otherwise discriminate against any person, on account of religious belief, expression, or exercise. This amendment does not authorize the government to coerce or inhibit religious belief, expression or exercise.
My objections to this version were threefold: (1) the body of the text continued to omit explicit protections for school prayer and public acknowledgments (although the preamble did mention school prayer, the Supreme Court has ruled that a preamble is not legally binding); (2) it limited constitutional protections only to single individuals (“any person”) rather than collective citizens, thus excluding protections for groups or organizations; and (3) it upheld rather than reversed the detrimental effects of the Supreme Court ruling in Lee v. Weisman which said that allowing a private individual to offer a prayer at a public school graduation constituted government coercion. For these reasons, we could not support this version, and the deadlock, therefore, continued.
One Last Try
In September 1996, a final push was made by House leadership to resolve the conflict and bring an amendment to a vote. Rep. Istook therefore offered two options to resolve the impasse. He first proposed that both versions be brought to the House floor for open debate and a vote. The active supporters of the Hyde amendment (now mainly reduced to the National Association of Evangelicals, the Christian Legal Society, and the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptists) refused to permit this, opposing a vote on any amendment other than their own. Mr. Istook next proposed that the revised Hyde language be brought forward for a vote-but with the understanding that the legislators could offer amendments to its language. (Mr. Armey even agreed to sponsor this version in order to get his authority behind it and thus to move something onto the floor for a vote.) Again, the Hyde supporters defeated this option. (In fairness, it should be noted that Congressman Hyde took no side in this debate; he was willing to allow the Christian leaders to resolve the issue.) Even though Rep. Istook was willing to have full and open debate on both versions, his opponents evidently felt that they could not win such a process. It was to be their wording or nothing, and, regretably, the nothing prevailed.
However, the failure to achieve a vote is not primarily the fault of the House leadership; they tried to move this issue along and even offered a logical compromise. The fault rests with the strong division within the Christian community. Yet, in my judgment, the strength of our opponents was actually deceptive. Based on my numerous contacts across the nation, I personally believe that the leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals, the Christian Legal Society, and the Christian Life Commission did not accurately represent the view of the majority of their constituents on the issues of school prayer and public religious acknowledgments. Nevertheless, their voice was heard and heeded by congressional leaders.
Am I disappointed at this result? Certainly, for although groups like the National Association of Evangelicals and the Baptist Christian Life Commission are often our allies on other issues, they were our opponents on this one. Therefore, with such opposition, does this issue have a chance in the 105th Congress? Perhaps, for Rep. Istook has already introduced a new proposal which states:
To secure the peoples’ right to acknowledge God: the right to pray or acknowledge religious belief, heritage, or tradition on public property, including public schools, shall not be infringed. The government shall not compel joining in prayer, initiate or compose school prayers, or discriminate or deny a benefit on account of religion. (52 words)
There is both good news and bad news surrounding this proposal. The good news is that, in addition to the groups which supported the Istook approach last session, Christian Coalition is also a strong supporter of this wording. Additionally, Traditional Values Coalition has also joined and the Baptist Christian Life Commission indicates that they may come on board. Furthermore, Chairman Hyde has promised that this proposal will move forward and into the full committee for a vote and that this time he will not sponsor alternative language proposed by the other groups. The bad news is that some of the groups which opposed last year’s specific protections still oppose this version.
Therefore, only time will tell how – or if – the school prayer and religious liberties issue will be resolved. Contact your Representative (202-224-3121), or any of the leaders of the above Christian organizations, to let them know how you feel about this issue.
How You Can Help
Excited supporters frequently tell us at WallBuilders that more people need to hear the truth about the Founding Fathers and America’s heritage. We agree and are continuously working toward that end. Yet, we cannot fulfill that goal by ourselves; it will take all of us spreading the message. Toward this end, four tools have proved particularly effective.
The first is the use of the local cable access channel-a cable channel designated for airing, at no charge, programming supplied by local citizens. Therefore, individuals across the nation have provided to their local cable stations the video tapes that we have produced for broadcast. The use of this channel by local citizens has been very effective.
The second is that in many communities, groups of businessmen or ministerial alliances have banded together to purchase an hour of air time on local network affiliates and shown one of our programs (e.g., this has occurred in Las Vegas, Chicago, etc.). They, too, have received strong and positive responses from many in the community who were completely unaware of our heritage.
The third is the use of radio. We have produced numerous one-minute radio spots called “Moments from America’s History” which citizens can make available for loan to radio stations, or for use on local radio programs.
The fourth is your generous tax-deductible contributions, which help us produce and provide these and other programs for public use. Thank you for your continued support-your gifts do make a difference!
For information on what you can do to help spread the message of America’s moral and religious heritage through any of the above avenues, contact us at (817) 441-6044.
Meet a Friend: The Providence Foundation
The Providence Foundation is an organization whose mission is to spread liberty, justice, and prosperity among the nations by instructing individuals in a Biblical philosophy of life. Such instruction presents the Biblical world-view approach to history, law, government, politics, economics, business, education, family life, etc., and is heavily illustrated by pertinent examples from American and/or Biblical history.
Their message is worldwide in its appeal, and Executive Director Stephen McDowell has taught seminars not only throughout the United States but also in Asia, South America, Australia, and Africa, and has consulted with their government officials. He has also assisted in writing their government documents, and has even helped start Godly political parties in new nations. Stephen is the author of several books and is a frequent speaker at churches, schools, conferences, seminars, and political gatherings.
Contact the Providence Foundation at P.O. Box 6759, Charlottesvile, VA 22906, (804) 978-4535, e-mail: [email protected]
“. . . know and respect those who work hard among you. . . .”
I Thessalonians 5:12
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