December 12, 1994
CLC gives Congress input on teacher-led school prayer amendment
By Art Toalston
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--The Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission is lending a hand to incoming Speaker Newt Gingrich's announced plans for the House of Representatives to vote on a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution by July 4, 1995, to permit voluntary school prayer.
Three CLC leaders, Executive Director Richard Land, James Smith, government relations director, and Michael Whitehead, general counsel, met Dec. 7 with Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., who has designated by Gingrich to draft a suitable proposal.
Istook is holding several such meetings to discuss proper constitutional wording, his press secretary, Steve Jones, said. For now, it is too early to predict when the proposed amendment will be ready for a vote, Jones said.
Gingrich's activism for school prayer -- undergirded by Republican control of both houses of Congress for the first time since the 1950s -- has rekindled the controversial issue, which dates back to much-debated 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court rulings striking down government-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in public schools.
According to Whitehead, the first draft of a proposed amendment by Istook states:
"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. Neither the United States nor any State shall compose the words of any prayer to be said in public schools."
According to Land, "Such an amendment would prohibit the government from sponsoring religion as was done prior to 1963, but would also forbid the government and the court system from censoring or segregating voluntary student religious expression from the public school milieu."
Extended commentary on the school prayer issue by Land and Whitehead will appear in upcoming issues of the CLC publication Salt and Light. Both men advocate a school prayer amendment, with Land stating his belief that most Southern Baptists favor a "carefully crafted prayer amendment."
Says Whitehead, "The very issue before the people is whether there is a fundamental right of a dissenter to stop other private citizens from engaging in prayer or other religious expression, simply because it occurs in a public school setting. We do not believe that such a fundamental right does or should exist."
On the other side, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the Southern Baptist Convention's religious liberty agency until replaced by the CLC several years ago, issued a formal statement Nov. 22 opposing any amendment to the U.S. Constitution to permit voluntary school prayer.
Moreover, an interfaith coalition -- including the BJC -- has been assembled to oppose any such amendment. The coalition sent a letter to President Clinton Nov. 18 stating its categorical opposition, according to news reports.
Land contends a constitutional amendment is needed, recounting, "A reporter's recent question furnishes the answer: 'Won't any attempted solution passed by Congress just end up back in the courts?' I told him he had just raised the best argument for a constitutional, rather than a legislative, remedy. ... The prayer amendment becomes part of the Constitution, which, by definition, makes it 'constitutional.'
"Most Southern Baptists who now embrace the right kind of constitutional prayer amendment have done so because they have lost confidence in the nation's court system as being able or willing to protect student's free exercise rights without such an amendment," Land said.
Citing concerns expressed by then-Supreme Court Justices Arthur Goldberg and Potter Stewart, Land noted: "The past three decades have produced an aggressive secularizing neutrality (by government) which has been hostile to, and has discriminated against, the religious free exercise of students. Most Americans agree that this secularizing of American society has gone too far."
Land also quoted from a December 1991 Time magazine cover story, "One Nation Under God: Has the separation of Church and state gone too far?"
"For God to be kept out of the classroom or out of America's public debate by nervous school administrators or over-cautious politicians serves no one's interest," Time wrote. "That restriction prevents people from drawing on the country's rich and diverse religious heritage for guidance, and it degrades the nation's moral discourse by placing a whole realm of theological reasoning out of bounds. The price of that sort of quarantine, at a time of moral dislocation, is -- and has been -- far too high. The courts need to find a better balance between separation and accommodation, and Americans need to respect the new religious freedom they would gain as a result."
The Baptist Joint Committee, in its Nov. 22 statement, contended, "At best, an amendment is unnecessary; at worst, it would threaten religious freedom."
The BJC then listed four points to amplify its stance:
-- "Students already have the right to pray in public schools. Students can pray privately anytime they choose -- in the classroom, the lunchroom or the playground. They can pray orally in a group, as long as it is not disruptive. Religious clubs under the Equal Access Act abound and provide a constitutionally permissible opportunity for devotional Bible reading as well as prayer. True moments of silence, neutrally administered, provide another occasion for prayer.
-- "It is always dangerous to fiddle with the Constitution, particularly the First Amendment. For over two centuries the religion clauses in the First Amendment have stood as twin pillars ensuring religious liberty. The proposed amendment would do great harm to this freedom. There is little doubt that the amendment's proponents want to return state-sponsored prayer to the classroom. To send out of the classroom children whose consciences would be violated does not solve the problem. It only highlights the prayer's coercive effect and says that those who do not worship the 'god of the classroom' are outsiders and second-class citizens. Our schools belong to everyone, not just those who profess a particular creed.
-- "The proposed amendment is off base because it: (1) 'politicizes' prayer by polarizing the debate and allowing a holy act of religious worship to be kicked around like a political football; (2) 'governmentalizes' prayer, placing in the hands of governmental officials sacred tasks belonging properly to individual believers and congregations; (3) 'secularizes' prayer, calling upon school officials - - many of whom may not have any religious expertise or conviction -- to participate in religious worship; and (4) 'trivializes' prayer by reducing it to a brief and hollow ritual.
-- "We are not opposed to prayer. It is precisely because we believe so fervently in prayer that we do not want government to meddle in it. Prayer should be lift to the houses of worship, family, and to the students themselves."
Whitehead, meanwhile, in his analyses in the CLC publication Salt counters various BJC arguments:
-- "The proposal does not mandate prayer in schools, but permits it, if local boards choose. It expressly prohibits government requiring, composing or leading the prayer.
-- "It is framed only in terms of limitation on government, and primarily on federal government. The U.S. Constitution would no longer be an excuse for schools or judges to prohibit prayer by private citizens. Local school boards may still decide not to permit classroom prayer, based on state constitutions or local considerations, but they could not pass the buck to James Madison and the framers of the First Amendment.
-- "It does not purport to reverse the 1962-63 decisions of the Supreme Court banning government-mandated prayer and Bible-reading. Most Americans, including Southern Baptists, do not want government officials dictating religious exercises. We support this view of separation of church and state. On the other hand, the vast majority of Americans, including Southern Baptists, want liberty for their students to pray. An April 1994 Wirthlin poll shows over 78 percent support. Most people don't want the 'wall of separation' used as a barrier to student prayer in the classroom, lunchroom, gym or commencement hall. They reject any notion of the 'wall' which equates separation of church and state with separation of religious speech from public life.
-- "It is not a 'moment of silence' amendment. We already have the right to remain silent. That is in the Fifth Amendment. This proposal would protect the right of prayer and religious expression, out loud, so long as it was not materially disruptive of the school program. This amendment certainly would permit some local school boards to adopt a 'moment of silence' policy, while others might go further. But a 'moment of silence' amendment would not be worth the labor."
In a Nov. 21 statement, Whitehead took issue with the "tinkering with the Constitution." "That is an especially odd cry for Baptists," he said. "Early Virginia Baptists like John Leland opposed ratification of the Constitution unless it contained a bill of rights including a provision to protect religious freedom expressly. James Madison had believed that a Bill of Rights was unnecessary, but he acquiesced to Leland and others.
"The Constitutional document is not sacred," Whitehead continued. "It is the principle of religious liberty that is so important. How dare Baptists shrink from 'tinkering with the words' of the Constitution, while government officials tinker with the religious freedom rights of students and others. It is the tinkering with rights that should offend and be feared, not the altering of the document to make expressly clear that government cannot prescribe or prohibit student prayer or religious expression."
Whitehead acknowledged the proposed amendment drafted by Istook "needs to be clarified so as to expressly protect prayers and other religious expression by students, which we have been assured is Rep. Istook's intent."
It also should be expanded, Whitehead said, "to protect student religious freedom. By the inclusion of words 'student initiated and led prayer and other religious expression,' the proposed amendment would give clearer protection to a broad range of free speech rights which include religious speech by students in and outside the classroom."
The school prayer debate can be a healthy process, Whitehead contended. "We would trust the American people to express their will through their representatives, as the bill must be first approved by two-thirds of each house of Congress, and then by three-fourths of the state legislatures. The public debate about the issues of student religious liberty, and whether local boards may find ways to accommodate student religious expression, will be good for religion and for education. We support the right of the people to debate and to vote on these issues."
Whitehead acknowledged voluntary school prayer will not be a cure- all for society's ills, but noted: "... prayer is good 'first aid' for what public schools need. American can do a lot after we have prayed, but we cannot do more until we have prayed. An acknowledgement that God is Creator, and that students are moral creatures with the capacity to choose right and wrong, is a critical first ingredient for restoring public morality."