Combining imagination with reality for a moment, suppose that Washington, D.C., were destroyed by a natural catastrophe or act of war and that archaeologists of a latter millennium found such inscriptions as the following amid ruins of government buildings and memorials:
“In God We Trust,” on a wall in the Senate chamber of the Capitol.
“I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this White House and all that hereafter inhabit it,” from the prayer composed by John Adams, first President to occupy the executive mansion carved into the mantlepiece of the State Dining Room.
“The Heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth His Handywork,” one of the scriptures inscribed on walls of the Library of Congress.
And the touching inscription on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known only to God.”
The future archaeologists would be impressed with America’s spiritual foundation. But unless they were up on their history, they never would suspect that back in the 20th Century the courts banned “official” prayer and several other religion-related activities from school classrooms.
The United States does indeed have a strong spiritual heritage. It was religion that drove the Mayflower Pilgrims to new World shores. Successive generations of Americans invoked the aid of God – in drafting the Constitution, on their coins, in legislative sessions, in the national anthem. And from the very beginning, in the public schools.
But in 1962 – 170 years after adoption of the Bill of Rights – six Supreme Court justices reversed the traditional understanding of the meaning of the First Amendment and many generations of American custom. They held, in a highly controversial ruling, that it was unconstitutional to permit students to join in a brief officially sponsored non-denominational prayer.
Subsequent rulings have lined up back of the new precedent, banning Bible reading in the schools, posting of the Ten Commandments in classrooms, prayer meetings voluntarily initiated after class, and policies that allowed students to engage in a minute of silent prayer. One court even upheld a principal’s order forbidding kindergarten students to say grace before meals.
Erecting walls between school children and God is neither in keeping with historic national tradition nor current majority public feeling. A Gallup poll of 1982 reported that among persons acquainted with the prayer issue, 79 percent favored President Reagan’s proposal for a constitutional amendment permitting voluntary prayer in public schools.
That kind of public interest ought to prod Congress to get on with serious debate leading to a vote. Constitutional amendment procedure requires two-thirds approval in both the Senate and the House, and ratification by legislatures of three-fourths of the states.
It’s time to put the question to the states of the union. They are closer to the people and ought to have a voice. But the states will not get that opportunity unless the two chambers of Congress so will.
Now, as the Senate takes up the proposal, Majority Leader Howard Baker, himself a prayer proponent, predicts a filibuster by opponents – the same technique used in 1982 to derail the measure championed by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N. C. to strip the Supreme Court of jurisdiction over school prayer cases.
In the Democratic-run House, the amendment remains bogged down in an unsympathetic judiciary committee.
Obvious congressional reluctance to bring the issue to a vote is ironic when you consider that under present law the Senate and House, with Supreme Court approbation, begin each day with a paid chaplain’s prayer for God’s blessings on their efforts while the prayer privilege is denied school children.
Reagan’s proposed amendment reads simply: “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.”
The President favors a spoken prayer. A compromise urged by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would allow a moment of silence at the beginning of the school day. Hatch believes his plan has a better chance for passage. Why couldn’t both options be available in keeping with the voluntary nature of the program?