NEW YORK (May. 15)
The American Jewish Congress has vowed to fight an amendment adopted last week by the U.S. House of Representatives that requires schools receiving federal funds to allow voluntary prayer.
The amendment is unnecessary and unconstitutional, AJCongress charges.
The amendment was attached at the last minute to the Carl Perkins Vocational Education Act, passed late on the night of May 9 by a vote of 269-135, with 30 abstentions.
It was proposed by Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-Calif.) late into the House debate on federal funding of school training programs.
The amendment states that funds available under the program would not be available to any school “which has a policy of denying or which effectively prevents participation in prayer in public schools by individuals on a voluntary basis.”
The amendment appears to have little practical effect. As AJCongress points out, there is little evidence that there is now widespread interference with students’ right to pray privately.
But the Supreme Court has ruled since 1962 that the Constitution does not permit schools to set aside periods specifically for voluntary prayer.
Advocates of church-state separation fear that a school could justify a period of voluntary prayer under the amendment, especially if it claimed such a period would be the only way to guarantee a student the opportunity to pray.
CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT NEXT?
Dannemeyer told lawmakers last week that “there is no effort on my part as the author of this amendment to mandate that we have voluntary prayer in the schools.”
But he criticized the 1962 Supreme Court decision banning school prayer, linked a host of social ills to a lack of school prayer and quoted a 1931 Supreme Court justice’s opinion that the United States is “a religious people, Christian nation.”
And on Monday, an aide to Dannemeyer said the conservative congressman now hopes to introduce a constitutional amendment that would “soon turn things back to pre-1962.”
“We got what we wanted: a roll-call vote on school prayer in the House of Representatives, which will act as a springboard for what we intend to do,” Paul Mero, a spokesman for the congressman, said in a telephone interview.
Critics bristled at the amendment’s vague wording and the haste with which it was inserted into the debate on training programs.
“Are we somehow or other mandating that (schools) state a certain time that you have voluntary prayer?” Rep. John Goodling (R-Pa.) asked during the brief debate.
Goodling, like other representatives who were not enthusiastic about the prayer amendment, nonetheless voted for the vocational funding bill.
Also voting for the amended bill was Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.). Glickman, who is Jewish, said he strongly supports the separation of church and state, but felt the amendment “does not have a practical effect.”
“Very few districts take active and deliberate steps to oppose voluntary prayer,” he said in a telephone interview from Washington.
MUST STILL CLEAR SENATE
Other Jewish representatives who voted for the bill included Ben Erdreich (D-Ala.), Willis Gradison (R-Ohio) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
But according to Steven Silbiger, Washington representative of the AJCongress, the amendment “opens up the debate” on school prayer.
“By a 2-1 majority, the House of Representatives has voted somewhat for school prayer, and that’s a problem,” said Silbiger.
“If Dannemeyer sees he has an opening, he’ll put it on lots of bills. There has to be a campaign of people who are opposed to school prayer,” he said.
The National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, which represents the interest of Orthodox Jewish groups on church-state matters, had no comment on the legislation.
The amendment is expected to go through a number of versions before being voted upon by the Senate. Opponents hope it will die in the Senate Labor and Human Relations Committee.