Conservative senators back measures to protect voluntary student prayer

Thursday, March 4, 1999

Two of the U.S. Senate's oldest and most socially conservative Republicans have introduced actions to protect voluntary student prayer in public schools.

Neither of the congressional actions elaborates on what exactly is threatening voluntary student prayer. But statements by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., before introducing his “Voluntary School Prayer Protection Act,” earlier this session, suggest a distrust of public school teachers' and administrators' willingness to protect student-led religious expression. Helms, moreover, said his bill was needed because the nation was lacking in morals.

Helms introduced his school-prayer bill and several other socially conservative acts, which he insisted were needed to “address permissive social policies that are creating a moral and spiritual crisis in our country.”

The 78-year-old Republican, first elected to the Senate in 1972, also suggested that public school officials have been derelict in their duty to protect students' First Amendment rights.

“Under this bill, school districts could not continue — in constitutional ignorance — enforcing blanket denials of students' rights to voluntary prayer and religious activity in the schools,” he said. “For the first time, schools would be faced with real consequences for making uninformed and unconstitutional decisions prohibiting all voluntary prayer.”

The Helms bill would “prohibit the provision of federal funds to any state or local educational agency that denies or prevents participation in constitutional prayer in schools.” The bill also states that “no person shall be required to participate in prayer, or shall influence the form or content of any constitutional prayer, in a public school.” The bill has yet to be assigned to a committee.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based religious-liberty group, called the bill an effort to confuse the law surrounding student-initiated prayer.

“The current law and Supreme Court rulings clearly protect student rights to pray as long as their prayers do not infringe on the rights of others,” Steve Benen, a spokesman and writer for Americans United, said. “The right wing has rhetoric that suggests otherwise and some of them would also wish to return to a system prior to the 1960s when government would interfere with an individual's right to pray by telling students when and how to pray.”

Also introduced was a joint resolution proposing a constitutional amendment that would apparently allow all prayer on public school property. The resolution, introduced in late January by Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., is the second such measure this congressional session. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., also introduced one in the House, in January.

Both joint resolutions propose an amendment to the Constitution protecting student prayer and are similarly worded. Thurmond's measure reads: “Nothing in this 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.”

While no other representative has signed on as a co-sponsor to Emerson's resolution, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., last week joined Thurmond in urging the Senate to adopt the joint resolution.

When the 96-year-old Thurmond introduced the joint resolution to the 106th Congress he proclaimed that student-initiated prayer had been banished from the public schools by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This proposal has received strong support from both sides of the aisle and is of vital importance to our Nation,” Thurmond said, as quoted in the Congressional Record. “It would restore the right to pray voluntarily in public schools — a right which was freely exercised under our Constitution until the 1960s, when the Supreme Court ruled to the contrary. The Supreme Court has too broadly interpreted the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and, in doing so, has incorrectly infringed on the rights of children — and their parents — who wish to observe a moment of silence for religious or other purposes.”

Thurmond's assertion that the Supreme Court banned voluntary student prayer in the 1960s is inaccurate. In 1962, in Engel v. Vitale, the high court invalidated a public school prayer that had been composed by the New York State school board. The Supreme Court said nothing about voluntary prayer by students except that it was constitutionally permissible.

Prayer bills such as Thurmond's and Emerson's are proliferating in state legislatures and have become increasingly popular with federal politicians.

The 105th Congress also attempted to pass a constitutional amendment for the states to consider. That amendment, supported by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., proclaimed that no government entity could infringe on the right of people to “acknowledge God” on public property, including in public schools. Istook's joint resolution was defeated in the House last summer.

Benen says Thurmond's bill, like Helms', is constitutionally muddled.

“It would appear that there are those in Congress who feel it necessary to place our religious freedoms in danger with reckless constitutional amendments,” he said. “I sincerely hope that the Congress, as it did last year, chooses to reject these dangerous and reactionary attempts.”

If Congress were to adopt the joint resolution, it would have to be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures before becoming a constitutional amendment.

Thurmond's joint resolution is pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee.