343 Lawyers Warn Congress Not to Tamper with Constitution on Issue of Prayers in Public Schools

A group of 343 constitutional lawyers, professors of law and law school deans from all over the United States warned Congress today not to tamper with the Bill of Rights on the issue of prayers in public schools. The lawyers signed a statement which was distributed to 435 members of the House of Representatives. The House votes next Monday on a Constitutional amendment that would permit non-denominational prayers on public premises, including school buildings.

“If the first clause of the Bill of Rights, forbidding laws respecting an establishment of religion, should prove so easily susceptible to impairment by amendment, none of the succeeding clauses will be secure,” the statement said. It was circulated to fellow attorneys by Leo Pfeffer, special counsel of the American Jewish Congress and chairman of the political science department of Long Island University. More than 60 American law schools were represented by the signatories.

The statement was identical with one Pfeffer prepared and circulated in June, 1964 at the conclusion of seven weeks of hearings by the House Judiciary Committee on proposals at the time to amend the Constitution to circumvent the Supreme Court’s ruling on school prayers and Bible reading. That statement carried the signatures of 223 lawyers.

The current statement, titled “Our Most Precious Heritage,” observed that “American liberties have been secure in large measure because they have been guaranteed by the Bill of Rights which the American people have until now deemed practically unamendable. If now, for the first time, an amendment to ‘narrow its operation’ (proscribed by Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia statute for establishing religious freedom) is adopted, a precedent will have been established which may prove too easy to follow when other controversial decisions interpreting the Bill of Rights are handed down.”

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