School Prayer:
When God is Not Enough

Part Two .

Larry Pahl

Copyright February 1996, 2000; 2004

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But one problem that special interest groups have is a narrowed range of focus, because their needs are not comprehensive as those of a national political candidate, but rather provincial and specific. The Religious Right concentrated on several pet issues, including curtailing gay rights, banning abortion, and resisting the ERA.47 Gary Jarmin of Christian Voice said, "It's the beginning of a new era of conservatism in America."48 What Jarmin didn't see was the Right was painting itself into a corner while they thought they were on center stage. In a few years, there would be no Christian Voice, nor Moral Majority. As political organizations they would suffer the fate of Barry Goldwater: opinionated, well known, and politically six feet under.

A backlash ensued. TV producer Norman Lear, Notre Dame's Theodore Hesburgh, Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum, and Rev. William Howard, the president of the National Council of Churches which represented at that time about 40 million people, joined together to form People for the American Way (PAW), an interest group which still exists and is already tooling up to fight the Gingich prayer amendment.49 Opposed philosophically to the Religious Right50 , the potential grass-roots breadth of PAW is evident from its founding coalition of individuals. Instead of learning the importance of "laying low" on issues when electoral support is sought51 (again thinking here of interest group as a look-alike campaigner), the Right went exactly the other direction.

When criticized, especially Christian Voice and Jerry Falwell, responded. Morality was a matter of right or wrong; behavior was either moral or immoral. the issues on the New Christian Right agenda were not compromisable. It was not a matter of arrogance or special insight; the Bible taught precisely what Christians should believe. For those who understood that, their condemnation of their opponents was necessary, in fact the duty of the true Christian.52

This is an error common to groups that tend to follow single issue or group-of-issue interests. What the new interest groups on the right should have done is gained a foothold with their electoral successes and built from there. They assumed that America was buying their program en toto when it fact the Right had exhausted their appeal. Several lessons for interest groups are merged into Lesson Four:


Have an honest sense of your limitations and be content with an honest assessment of your breadth of appeal. Don't confuse agreement on an issue as a holistic embrace. Learn to network and build coalitions to expand your effectiveness and message.53

Appendix #2 is an overview of most of the groups which testified at several of the major school prayer hearings over the last 30 years. With so many religious groups, how and why is it that they line up consistently either for or against prayer in schools? Why don't all religious groups promote with vigor an exercise so religious as prayer? A broad answer will be offered to this question, and then several specific ones. For the most part, religious interest groups are like public interest groups in that the wealth they deal in is not so much monetary, but comes in the form of some other good they value, are trying to protect, and/or want to use as capital. This is especially true in relation to their position on school prayer, which offers little tangible physical gain to any player in the circuit of Congress, judiciary, educational institutions, or religious groups.54

There are two great dividing conceptions over the issue of school prayer. Almost all of the groups involved in the issue fall into one of these two groups. Both are pursuing what they perceive as value, wealth. Both want to advance, as entrepreneurs of spiritual mercantilism, this conception of wealth and improve it. There is somewhat of a zero-sum game here in that as the wealth of one group is increased, it seems the perceived wealth of the other declines.

The two great conceptions of wealth, simply put, are "freedom" and "religion." Freedom is an obvious--Thomas Jefferson once wrote "self-evident"-- endowment that Americans have sought since day one of their history. A famous Virginia statesman said he preferred it to death. It is enshrined--in speech, press, assembly, and "free exercise"--in the First Amendment of the world's most stable Constitution. It is a core part of America's fundamental liberal creed. It is considered as the foremost wealth of any nation by some thinkers, worthy to be funded, maintained, invested in and nurtured in the bank of the state. America happens to be the world's pinnacle development of an idea started in Holland, developed by Rhode Island founder Roger Williams and then a century later tangibly matured by American Constitutional pater James Madison. The then-new and now proven thesis deriving from this genesis is that freedom is maximized when church and state are separated, each sovereign in their own sphere. Opposition to Constitutionally mandated school prayer is a natural position for groups who make "freedom" their spiritual gold standard.

A chart below indicates which groups maintain this goal in their labors in the school prayer amendment mines.






The Presbyterian Church. * Presbyterian General Assembly "declares its opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment on school prayer and urges United Presbyterians not to be misled by references to officially-sponsored classroom prayer as voluntary..." (69-70) [That is, some freedom is lost by mandated prayer--it’s not really "voluntary."]

Catholic organizations and thinkers. + William O’Reilly, director of the Maryland Federation of Catholic Laity, had inserted into the record a list of hundreds of groups that favor restoring prayer in public school. "Our position on the school prayer issue is premised on the belief that religion and moral values cannot be completely separated from public education." (425)

Jewish groups and thinkers. * "Many of us in the Jewish community are particularly sensitive to the ability of public institutions to give sanction to prejudicial treatment of the law." (532) [That is, our freedom will be curtailed as the majority is coddled.]

Most Religious Right Groups. * (Moral Majority:) "Religious values, principles, and practice have always been a vital aspect of American public education...the importance of religious tradition in public education." (210)

Traditionally, almost all Baptists. * "Permitted to pray?" "Determined the content of prayers"?...Such phrases strike at the very heart of religious liberty." (253)

National Assoc. of Evangelicals. * "We see in the decisions of our Federal courts a callous indifference to religion....America’s rich religious heritage must be preserved." (209)

Mainline churches. + (United Methodists:) "The State...should not require prayer or worship in the public schools, but should leave students free to practice their own religious convictions." (289-90)

Focus on the Family. Gary Bauer of FRC said a prayer amendment would send this signal: "The last 32 years were an odd experiment that we have now rejected as a culture." [Power, not freedom(Christian American, Jan. 95, 23.)

Most "religious minority" churches such as Christian Scientists, Unitarians, Seventh-day Adventists. * (SDA:) "Our forefathers rejected the notion of a benevolent government granting religious liberty...these rights were God-given...Minority rights are protected by the Bill of Rights." (587)

Family Research Council. "Bible studies on Capitol Hill--ever-present through the years--are booming now. Before the current session of Congress was 100 days old, at least 4 members of Congress asked me to pray with them over public policy decisions they were facing...[104th Congress] For now it’s enough today that its accomplishments include the restoration of our heritage of easy commerce between private creed and public service." Gary Bauer, Pres. FRC, Citizen, May 15, 1995, 9:5, p. 16.)

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. + "We are deeply committed to preserving the right of all Americans to freely choose the religions...they will support and the right of all Americans to freedom from government establishment..." (484)

The American Center for Law and Justice.

"We have reached a point in our country where we have more of a freedom from religion that a freedom for religion." (From a statement prepared by Jay Alan Sekulow, Chief Counsel for ACLJ, for Congressional Digest, Jan. 1995, 30.)

People for the American Way. * "It was not too long ago that Baptist ministers were beaten, imprisoned and run out of town in the colony of Virginia for preaching doctrine at variance with that of the established church. Government can be...bigoted. Some forces behind this amendment would take us back to the day when one person’s religion could be imposed on another." [and thus limit my freedom] (500-501)

The Christian Coalition. "The results of decoupling learning from morality are as conspicuous as the first lady’s bouffant hairdo...The elite will fight school prayer like cornered bobcats for a simple reason: Religion is a direct refutation of values they are cramming into callow craniums. They don’t want competition for the hearts and minds of the future." (Don Feder, "America Wants School Prayer," Christian American, Jan. 1995, 23. This is the journal of the Christian Coalition.)

The ACLU. * [Our pluralistic] "society...has developed and flourished under a constitutional system that recognizes religion is a private matter and that the rights of all persons to exercise freely their religious beliefs are best protected when the Government is prohibited from engaging in, interfering with, or sponsoring religious activities." (521)

Christian Voice. * "...there is nothing in the First Amendment that suggests that a person has a constitutional right from being exposed to a religious sentiment...The first amendment was intended to protect freedom for religion, not freedom from religion." (241)


* = Testimony at 1983 Judiciary’s Constitution subcommittee Hearings--page numbers in parentheses are from Voluntary Prayer Constitutional Amendment, April 29, May 2, June 27, 1983, U.S. Government Printing Office.

+ = Testimony at 1980 Judiciary’s Courts subcommittee hearings as recorded in Prayer in Public Schools and Buildings--Federal Court Jurisdiction, July 29,30, August 19, 21 and September 9, 1980, U.S. Government Printing Office.

The other family of groups, those who prize "religion" above all else, are within a strong tradition of American moral fiber. They believe religion is absolutely vital to maintain moral health in our society. They believe that George Washington told his country no lie when he stressed this thought in his farewell address. A secular, liberal state can never, in the end, they believe, maintain and enforce a moral creed. Any attempt will ultimately break down into the chaos of relativism, nihilism, statism or some other immoral configuration. Therefore religion must be socialized and inculcated in the citizenry. School prayer follows naturally. (See "Liberty-Religion" chart)

M. Stanton Evans, chairman of the religious Right think tank Education and Research Institute, offers a quintessential example of the "religion-first" position in his recent book The Theme is Freedom: Religion, Politics, and the American Tradition.55 It provides a striking answer to the questions asked early on in this paper, "What could motivate a group to attempt modification, through constitutional amendment, of so grandiose a construction? What groups have been involved in this process?... What are the stakes of this contest?" The introduction to his piece reads: "In this issue, M. Stanton Evans makes the case that the Founders intended the First Amendment to protect religion from government. He offers compelling historical evidence to support this view and to refute the 'liberal history lesson,' which teaches that religion and freedom are in conflict..."56 The two groupings I have set up here--those who place freedom at the pinnacle of their value-hierarchy, over and against those who place religion there, are, predictably, evenly split over constitutional interpretation. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia are champions of the "religion-first" side. Rehnquist wrote in a dissent in Wallace v Jaffree (the case which struck down an Alabama law establishing a moment of silence in the state's public schools),

"The 'wall of separation between church and state' is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned."

Stanton writes the same thing:

"The First Amendment depicted by Justice Black and other liberal jurists is, unfortunately, a fabrication. The Supreme Court's alleged history is a prime example of picking and choosing elements from the past to suit the ideological fashions of the present."

He correctly characterizes the position the "freedom-first" groups when he writes:

"In a nutshell, this [the view of Black, Souter, "freedom-first" groups] tells us that the Founders chiefly responsible for the Constitution's religion clauses were Madison and Jefferson; that they held views intensely hostile toward any governmental backing for religion; and that the amendment was a triumph for their separationist positions."57

Much of the testimony of these groups is a discussion of the meaning of the First Amendment and the historical background associated with it. I chose not to fine-tune this discussion in this paper, other than to broadly display it in the charts here.58 The power of the polar dichotomy of the liberty-religion groups sketched here shows itself in that, even though the school prayer issue has taken several radical permutations in the last three decades, the groups involved have not changed their polar positions. The three major changes in form of the various prayer amendments were


the Helms amendment proposing a change in federal court jurisdiction,


the meditation alternative, and an


"equal access" provision.

The Helms amendment proposed limiting the jurisdiction of the federal courts so that they could not hear school prayer cases from the state level. While this was an unusual constitutional gymnastic, the pro-prayer groups found constitutional rationale to defend it; the opponents simply had an added reason to be against it. The Helms amendment was defeated in 1980. The two other provisions came together in S.J. Resolution 212 in 1983. Because the previous school-prayer amendments had been so strongly criticized for their inability to define "non-sectarian", some parts of the pro-prayer forces opted toward a "meditation" plank.

An "equal access" clause was added so that religious groups could use public facilities in before- or after- school situations. An "equal access" bill later passed congress and is currently in effect, without for recourse to a constitutional amendment. But the "meditation" plank of proposed amendment SJ 212 caused the closet thing to a dilution in the pro-prayer ranks. Some looked at it as too much of a compromise and they could not get behind it as strongly.59


Narrow interest groups must often choose between principles they are firmly committed to, and a dilution of those principles for the sake of compromise and electoral success. One rule of thumb in this cost-benefit analysis, especially for groups that have been built up through commitment to a certain viewpoint, principle or issue-stance, is this: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. You are sure of your position, its virtue and truth, that got you to where you are. You are not so sure what form dilution through compromise may take. Stand for what you are sure of.

The form the prayer amendment under the Gingrich House will take seems, therefore, not one of the important factors in terms of its ultimate potential success. The two opposing forces which have showed themselves in the 1964, 1980, and 1983 amendment wranglings will basically remain the same, with the following added factors: The massive build-up of groups on the religious right, more aggressive than ever in what they term "religious liberty" defense.60 What was earlier referred to in this paper as a constituency without a group now has an abundance to choose from, most visibly the Christian Coalition61 , which has just sent to 5,000,000 Christians a 13-question questionnaire, in which two questions deal with school prayer.

The presence of a new Republican Congress62 , already committed at the House level to bring a school prayer amendment, and an apparently strong pro-Religious Right element among the new legislators.63 Many among the 73 GOP freshmen have formed their own voting bloc and are eager to exert their clout with a second Contract to cover school prayer.64

The Christian Coalition is aware of the demise of the Moral Majority dealt with earlier in this paper, and they are determined not to make the same mistake. The difference in names aptly states the differences in outlook. The Moral Majority proudly thought they were the majority in America. They were not. Ralph Reed, the Coalition's executive director, is seeking coalitions with Catholics, Jews and others who can warm up to the group's "return to traditional family values" cheereading.

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A Supreme Court, that, while not openly warm to a Constitutional prayer amendment, has a Chief Justice and an articulate firebrand65 who side with the religious right's position, as already described here. And if the political punch of the Right continues to grow, it may nudge the High Court establishment-clause cocoon toward its next stage.

The Coalition's constituency is active, no rubber nose.66 Through the media-power of the Right, and their weekly home-church recharges from an increasingly politicized ministry, the Right is strong not just with interest groups, but with the bedrock strength of interest groups--grass-roots.67 They seem eager to work for their causes68 , one of the chief of which is school prayer. It is, in a sense, the "mother" of issues in that the 1962 decision was the bombshell awakening that led to much of the organization now characterizing the Right.

A change in the largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists. Traditionally Baptists, including the Southern Baptists, have been committed to church-state separation, but have just moved toward the position of the Religious Right, that of restoring the American past where prayers were a traditional part of schools. This is a massive transformation, considering the three-century involvement of Baptists to the viewpoint which the Southern Baptists are now breaking from. Stan Hastey, executive director of the Alliance of Baptists, has written that the Southern Baptist Convention has become "a de facto political action committee for the national Republican party."69

This last point is worth elaboration. Despite differences on public-policy questions, Baptist groups joined efforts in Washington for the preservation of the first principle of the Baptist movement from its beginning in the seventeenth century: religious liberty and its constitutional corollary, separation of church and state. The Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (BJC) has represented the church-state interests of seven Baptist groups since 1936.70 But with the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) that body moved to dissociate from the BJC. The SBC funds traditionally given to BJC, making up three quarters of its operating monies, were withdrawn. In addition to breaking the 56-year SBC-BJC tie71 , with its centuries-deep tradition, the SBC will now seek governmental sponsorship of religious activities and public tax support for churches and their institutions.72

One factor in this change was pressure from the Reagan administration. On June 13, 1982, Vice President Bush, an Episcopalian, addressed thousands of messengers and elites of the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in New Orleans. He urged that body to abandon their generations of support for separation of church and state and cast their lot with Reagan's school prayer amendment. Morton Blackwell, special assistant to Reagan, urged his friend Ed McAteer, a Southern Baptist, to create a convention resolution endorsing the prayer amendment so that the messengers could follow the Bush advice. It was done and endorsed.73 This is a monumental change for this mammoth denomination. It represents a shift of momentum toward the direction of the religious right. A similar indication comes from the following chart which indicates an unprecedented increase in white evangelical voters in the three elections displayed:74



A Major Resurgence of Evangelical Voters

Percentage of electorate      














Election Years:





While school prayer is not a financial "bread and butter issue," and not on the cutting edge of anybody's social reform package, it is an "identity" issue to most of the groups involved in the debate. It is a symbolic issue on one hand, and yet, as has been noted, the "mother" of the continental divide we now refer to as the culture wars, American jihad. Being then, on the cusp of the symbolic and strategic, it takes on an unusual salience. The groups involved have been fighting hand-to-hand combat for decades. There has been no Battle of the Bulge as yet.75 No interest group is committed solely to the issue of constitutionally-required school prayer, and yet for many of the groups listed in Appendix #2, "Churches and Other Interest Groups Involved in School Prayer Debate, 1964-95," will fight for it doggedly because it is a flagship issue.

Appendix #2 chart:

Churches and Other Interest Groups Involved in School Prayer Debate, 1964-95

GROUP 1964-6 1980 1983 1995
ACTION Becker Amendment--voluntary school prayer Helms Amendment--restrict SC jurisdiction of state prayer Hatch-Thurmond Amendment-voluntary prayer, meditation Talk of Constitutional Religious Liberty Amendment
Presbyterian Church General Assembly United Presbyterian 2.5 mil

Traditionally opposed to state interference in matters of conscience.

Catholic Catholic Bishops Supported Catholic laity--support the Helms amendment

Hon. Robert Drinan-favors state help to inculcate religious principle , but opposes Helms amend.

US Catholic conference-chastises the amendment for the failure to include the right to receive religious instruction--this is essential to the right to pray America, editorial on coming school prayer; the Gingrich amendment will be useful if it "turns attention to...vouchers for church-affiliated schools.
Jewish Groups American Jewish Committee; separation of church and state the major contribution to Western Civ American Jewish Congress

B’nai B’rith

Union of Orthodox Rabbis

Nat Council of Jewish Women; B’Nai B’rith women;

Amer Jewish Congress; Union of American Hebrew Congregations ("Genius of the Bill of Rights; against prayer amendment to Const)

Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (against prayer amendment; unwise, unnecessary)
Southern Baptist

Other Baptist

Billy Graham spoke at a gathering of Southern Baptists in May 1964 in support of the Becker Amendment. Southern Baptist: BJC represents 27 million Baptists; in favor of church-state separation Points out that all "mainline" denominations oppose Baptist Committee On Public Affairs, James Dunn

Baptist Joint Committee

Bush appealed to Southern Baptists, 1982, to abandon generations of separation and cast their vote with Reagan’s school prayer amendment

Split: Joint Baptist committee and South Baptists. S. Baptists move toward conservatives, leaving traditional Baptist position of separation of church and state.
Mainline churches United Methodist Church 10 million --opposed to all establishment of religion by government

National council of Churches--40 million-5th time in 17 years they came against prayer amendments and reversal of SC; the prayer amendments are unjust because they make rights of minorities dependent on self-restraint of majorities; against Bill of R.

Lutheran Council: American Lutheran Church, Lutheran Church in America, and Assoc. of Evangelical Lutherans, 5 million

They oppose legislative attempts to circumvent the Court by legislation.

Episcopal Church: They favor prayer at all times but do not think government should establish when people should pray

Minority Jews Christian Scientists Since this is a debate about different views of Christianity the state should not be involved at all Seventh-day Adventists have a century long tradition of support for religious liberty and the separation of church and state. Unitarian Universalist (favors equal access concept but opposed to bill because its from congress; let school decide
Specials "Project Prayer" had actors Victor Jory Colleen Gray

US Solicitor General

223 con law professors

Dept. of Justice

The Helms Amendment is unconstitutional. Supremacy clause

Dept. of Justice: Deputy Attn. General--in favor of the Hatch Amendment ; Depty Atny Gen Schmults-- amend. is needed for equal access Carman, entertainer, getting petitions signed to put prayer back in schools

Americans United (AU)

People for the American Way

  ACLU Professor Thomas Emerson of the Yale Law School; separation AU; ACLU

Always doctrinaire Separationists

PAW: School prayer would endanger Bill of Rights, religious liberty
Religious Right The National Assoc. of Evangelicals testified briefly muted, but did favor the constitutional amendment 143 even though it had 2 mil members; it represented existing denominations not individual large churches

Robertson not on TV yet; Falwell was on weekly

Moral Majority -- Prof Charles Rice of Notre Dame Univ Law School--favor limiting SC jurisdiction in state statutes involving school prayer.

National Assoc. of Evangelicals-they want religious liberty and voluntary prayer for students in school

James Robionson, Bill Bright

Moral Majority

Christian Voice

Gary Bauer, as Deputy in Dept. of Education; He’s not so sure peer pressure in religion needs to be avoided;

National Assoc. of Evangelicals

Christian Legal Society

The American Center for Law and Justice (favors school prayer at graduations, etc. and also a prayer amendment. "We are convinced we can obtain justice.")
Think Tanks Billy Graham (a non-aligned religious mobillizer) Against SC; shocked at Engel

Would not appear in committee in any of these amendments; but favored non-sectarian prayer here; more quiet in future years

  American Enterprise Institute: original intent; nonsectarian prayer can’t be devised; meditation is okay with choice.

Liberty Lobby, the Spotlight: Prayer is an established tradition

Public Education Groups   No public education spokesmen testified in these hearings NEA, National Assoc of School Boards--strongly opposed to school prayer amendments Public education associations still opposed to school prayer
Political Culture No presidential input; Pres Kennedy strongly supported the Court’s position (1963) and Johnson did nothing to alter the administrations public posture. House Becker amendment in the news daily

Celler held the hearings but had no intention of lettering the Becker Amendment out

Reagan push; Senate based

Hearings on restraining the judiciary, 1981 the hearings were on the Helms amendment to limit SC jurisdiction; just before big Reagan and Senate victory in 1980. With new Republican Senate, Jesse Helms was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee for 6 yrs.

Reagan push; Senate based. First hearings with Republican Senate. A new power-- the Moral Majority. Newseek cover: Falwell: "Born-Again Politics."

October NRBA

Pres Clinton momentarily favored, then waffled

New Republican House and Senate

Promise of hearings and prayer amendment before July 4, 1995

Christian Coalition at a pinnacle of religious right power

Result 150 reps offered amendments; dissipated the strength of Becker’s amendment. Was never brought to the House floor.

Dirksen amend. defeated 1966

The Helms Amendment passed the Senate in 1979 but was defeated in the House in 1981. President Reagan’s Amendment went defeated 56 to 44, 11 short of the 2/3 required. Senators Baker and Weicker made deal each thinking they had the votes ? Tremendous Republican momentum, marriage with Religious Right.
Concept evolution Voluntary, minimally defined: Schools right to choose and the students right to respond to the school’s mandate.

Debates on the meaning of "non-sectarian" and "non-denominational"

Helms Amendment. Shorten the reach of the Supreme Court. Remove jurisdiction of state courts on school prayer. Graduated to equal access; Widmar; to Mergens (1990)

Movement toward meditation language, willingness to dispense with "prayer" term

Wallace v Jaffree overturned moment of silence 1987 Democratic Senate returns

1992 Helms sense of Senate that Lee overturn Engel, failed 55-38.

The Religious Right has furthered its teachings among its grassroots more;. Prayer and morality good things.

The factors listed above which improve the chances of the current groups in the religious right to be successful in their quest of a prayer amendment in a Republican Congress are diminished by the extent to which the current Court has held a line of Establishment that includes a good dose of separationist thinking. But as was said earlier, Court cocoons can unravel.76

While the current High Court has not embraced accomodationist thinking on the church-state issue, it has certainly embraced a federalism which puts increasing limitations on the reach of the national government and places a certain confidence in letting state decisions remain untouched when they are within their constitutional sphere.77 It seems certain that the above factors will lead to one of the closest encounters with Constitutional amendment we have seen in these thirty-year debates. While there are certainly reasons to think that the onslaught will be turned away, there are, more than ever before in recent memory, reasons to believe it will prevail. And that will be just fine, or dangerously threatening, depending on which side of the "liberty-religion" question one is on. The findings here indicate that the forces seeking school prayer need to be respected. For the first time in this warfare, the Right has more than just a prayer on its side. 78

Appendix #1-- Chronology of the School Prayer Debate...

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