Defeat of Bill on School Prayers is Hailed by Two Jewish Groups

The Washington representatives of two Jewish organizations in the forefront of the fight against bringing back prayers in the public schools have hailed the defeat of the effort in the Senate last week as a victory over “the greatest attack on our constitutional system of government in this century.”

“The fundamental guarantees of the church-state separation of powers have been preserved,” declared David Saperstein and Marc Pearl, Washington representatives of the Union Of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) and American Jewish Congress, receptively.

The effort by Sen. Jesse Helms (R. NC) to attach a rider permitting officially sanctioned prayer in public schools to a bill raising the national debt ceiling ended last Thursday when the Senate by a 51-48 vote rejected a move to end a week-long filibuster by opponents of school prayer. Sen. Edward Zorinsky (D. Neb.) was the only one of the Senate’s six Jews, who voted with the minority in an attempt to break the filibuster.

Saperstein and Pearl, in a thank you letter to the Senators who led the filibuster, expressed the hope that the vote would end attempts of the religious and new rights groups to curtail constitutional freedoms and limit the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and other federal courts in cases involving school prayer. But Helms said he would reintroduce his legislation in the next Congress.

BASIS FOR OBJECTIONS

Pearl and Saperstein maintained that Helms’ proposal was “fundamentally wrong” because “it was a blatant attempt to bypass our normal constitutionally approved means of changing” the Constitution, a constitutional amendment. They noted that if Congress was able to prevent the courts from declaring the law unconstitutional, as the Helmsbill provided, then freedom of speech, press and assembly were as much in danger as the separation of church and state.

But they stressed the proposal was also “wrong because it would have brought back government-sanctioned and sponsored prayer, violated the religious rights of children and teachers, trivialized prayer and have a traumatic impact on any children who did not want to pray with those words, in that manner.”

The two Washington representatives noted that no domestic issue in which they had worked on had received more broad-based support among Jews throughout the country. Jews wrote more letters, made more phone calls to their Senators and spoke out more effectively on this issue than any other domestic issue in recent years, they said.

UAHC and the AJCongress worked on Capitol Hill to defeat the legislation in cooperation with the American Jewish Committee, National Council of Jewish Women B’nai B’rith, B’nai B’rith Women, Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, and a broad coalition of educational, civil liberties and “mainline” Christian organizers.

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