RELIGION

Striking down prayer

MICHAEL POSNER April 2 1984
RELIGION

Striking down prayer

MICHAEL POSNER April 2 1984

Striking down prayer

RELIGION

Recent polls show that 81 per cent of Americans favor organized prayer in public schools. By far the most famous supporter of the controversial cause is President Ronald Reagan, who promised three years ago

to seek a constitutional amendment permitting formal recited prayer in schools. Last week, after weeks of debate, the U.S.

Senate finally put the matter to rest—at least temporarily. With all 100 senators present, the Senate voted 56 to 44 to accept the spoken prayer measure, 11 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to approve the amendment. Said

Reagan: "We have suffered a setback but we have not been defeated." The school prayer campaign is pop ular among the president's conservative backers and will likely become an issue in Reagan's re-election drive. Those op posed include leaders of the Lutheran,

Methodist, Jewish and Unitarian religions. Indeed, it is not likely to reappear on Capitol Hill soon. But intense lobbying by dozens of religious groups, pro and con, persuaded few lawmakers to change their minds.

The U.S. Constitution does not prohibit silent or voluntary prayer by individuals. The First Amendment says, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Since 1962 Supreme Court decisions have effectively ruled compulsory prayer in school illegal, upholding the his-

toric U.S. concept of separation of church and state. Those decisions gave rise to the movements to amend the Constitution among fundamentalist Christians.

The pro-amendment Senate forces, led by Republican Orrin Hatch of

Utah, attracted some powerful supporters, including Republican Majority Leader Howard Baker from Tennessee.

But opponents insisted that the Constitution was written to preserve religious liberty. Said Connecticut Republican Senator Lowell Weicker, who spearheaded the drive to defeat the amendment: “The founding fathers were very clear on this point. This [the U.S.] was to be a place where men and women could express themselves in their own way to their own God.” Weicker, civil liberties groups and mainline religious spokesmen argued that even a voluntary prayer would expose children of different faiths to peer pressure. Inevitably, the prayer that teachers or school boards approved would reflect the religious views of the majority.

Reagan himself lobbied hard for a favorable Senate verdict, and last week’s vote was widely regarded as a decisive legislative defeat for the president. Still, it is not a setback likely to hurt him politically. And should he win a second term, Reagan would probably have an opportunity to appoint two or more Supreme Court jurists who would interpret the Constitution differently. Having failed to amend that document, the school prayer campaigners may set their sights on a new, more available objective: to change the court itself.

-MICHAEL POSNER in Washington.