Pundits and editorial writers pounced on Newt Gingrich
when he suggested, soon after the election, that Republicans
in the House would take up a school prayer amendment after
acting on the agenda outlined in the Contract With America.
Most insisted the proposal was a major political blunder.
But then most of them had previously decried the contract
itself as a major political blunder, sure to lose votes for
Republican candidates.
The school prayer amendment is an excellent idea, but
an ambitious version of the proposal, one that tries to
remove most or all current restrictions on state
legislatures and local school boards, might not secure
adoption by the required three-quarters of the states. Even
seemingly popular general proposals can founder on emotional
objections to particular details, as the failure of the
Equal Rights Amendment ought to remind us. Almost any
version of a prayer amendment will trigger an extensive
debate, and such a debate will be helpful for Republicans
and healthy for the nation.
The prayer amendment is something that is well overdue.
In order to prosper into the next century we, as Americans,
need to go back to the fundamentals of our moral beliefs.
The placement of a time where students are allowed to
perform a voluntary silent prayer can help us reinstate
ethics and pure ideals back into our children. Without
prayer in school the American education system will continue
its downward spiral into a black hole of corruption and
greed.
Public opinion polls over the last thirty years have
continually shown that roughly three-quarters of the
electorate already supports prayer in the schools (Dyckman).
President Clinton seemed to acknowledge this when he
expressed openness to a prayer amendment soon after
Gingrich's statement (Van Biema). But the Democratic Party
is deeply committed, both financially and culturally, to
constituents demanding perpetual allegiance to their own
version of "civil liberties." The White House staff
demonstrated as much when it hastily disclaimed the
president's statement on this issue. It is not a bad thing
for the majority party to align itself with the overwhelming
majority of voters, and to leave Democrats to do the bidding
of their fearful, angry little pressure groups (Garvey).
However, without both parties agreeing to push for this, it
will be more than difficult to see it through. Prayer in
school needs to be an issue that becomes less about parties
and more about the views of the each Congressperson's
constituents.
The importance of the school prayer issue goes beyond
both prayer and the schools, for there is no direct mention
in the Constitution of either. Ever since its 1962 ruling
against prayer and Bible-reading in public schools, the
Supreme Court has used the supposed menace of religion in
public schools as a doctrinal and political launching pad
for broader attacks on religious references or
accommodations to religion in public life (Kaminer). The
Court is wrong in this aspect, and its decisions over the
past thirty-five years have been misleading and troublesome.
The court progressed from banning prayers in schools to
banning the display of the Ten Commandments in public school
hallways (Blummer). It held that state aid to parochial
schools violates the Constitution. It ruled that the display
of a Christmas tree in a public building was also a
constitutional violation. Some justices have even argued
that laws restricting access to abortion manifest an
improper "establishment of religion" by imposing a religious
opinion on legislative policy reasoning. In other words,
that the Constitution requires religious opinion not only to
be hidden, but also to be disenfranchised (Garvey).
Unfortunately these are some of the mild decisions made by
our federal court system. It is understandable to see why
the Ten Commandments should not be posted in a public school
or why parochial schools should not receive federal funding.
Nonetheless, the court has not dared to carry this
logic through to its full conclusion. The court
unaccountably ruled in the mid-1980s that prayers at the
opening of state legislative sessions were constitutionally
permissible, even when delivered by sectarian chaplains
remunerated with taxpayer funds. Even liberal justices have
acknowledged that the national motto, "In God We Trust," may
remain on American money, and that the reference to "one
nation under God" may remain in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Justice Brennan, in a widely cited opinion, argued that such
concessions to tradition were constitutionally acceptable
because they were merely "ceremonial" and "solemnizing"
gestures no longer conveying a serious "religious"
connotation. So who draws the line between ritual and
religious?
The Court has been most insistent, however, about
suppressing concessions to religion in public schools. In
1985 it ruled that even a state-mandated "moment of silence"
at the beginning of the school day was an affront to the
Constitution, because some students might