Proposed Amendment Would Require Schools to Allow ‘voluntary Prayer’

Jewish groups are gearing up to fight the year’s second major congressional school prayer initiative, the latest a proposed constitutional amendment that would bar public schools from preventing “voluntary prayer.”

The amendment, introduced last Friday by Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-Calif.), is not specific on what constitutes voluntary prayer. But it would allow “vocal voluntary prayer” in classrooms at a time set aside by the teacher, though such prayer could not be led by the teacher, explained Paul Mero, Dannemeyer’s press secretary.

Dennis Rapps, executive director of COLPA, the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, which represents Orthodox Jewish groups on church-state matters, said voluntary prayer is no problem, unless it has “a coercive aspect to it,” such as a set time.

Rapps said school prayer is “not an issue on COLPA’s agenda.” But he added that any regulation on school prayer “creates an oppressive atmosphere for certain students.”

Mero responded by saying a set time is needed so that students do not “disturb the order of the classroom” by offering prayers in the middle of classes.

The Supreme Court first banned organized school prayer in 1962. In its rulings, the court has struck down a “moment of silence” but not specifically a “set time for prayer.”

But “it would be hard for me to see how (a set time) could be sustained” by the Supreme Court, said Richard Fulton, associate legal director of the American Jewish Committee.

TEACHING OF CREATLONISM

The amendment had 32 co-sponsors as of Tuesday, including conservative Reps. Robert Dornan (R-Calif.) and Henry Hyde (R-Ill.). To gain approval, it would need support from a two-thirds majority in each chamber of Congress, plus ratification by 38 states.

Section 1 of Dannemeyer’s amendment states: “The right of the people to allow voluntary school prayer and the teaching of the Judeo-Christian ethic in public schools shall not be denied or abridged by the United States.”

It states later that the amendment does not permit “any governmental or administrative authority to prescribe the form or content of any voluntary prayer.”

In addition, “nothing in this amendment shall constitute an establishment of religion,” it states.

Section 2 clarifies that the phrase “teaching of the Judeo-Christian ethic” shall include “the Ten Commandments and the creation of the earth, as accepted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

Mark Pelavin, associate Washington representative of the American Jewish Congress, criticized that definition. “Is Rep. Dannemeyer the arbiter of what the Judeo-Christian heritage is?” He termed the attempt to define it the “kind of government behavior that is troublesome.”

On the House floor, Dannemeyer complained last week that “the humanist philosophy has kicked the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and all rivals other than man himself, out of our nation’s public school system.”

In a related move, the House approved, by a 269-135 vote on May 9, a Dannemeyer amendment to an education bill denying federal funds for training programs to any school district that has “a policy of denying or which effectively prevents participation in prayer in public schools by individuals on a voluntary basis.”

Mero called that amendment “innocuous” in that it “only takes effect when some (school district) actually opposes voluntary prayer.” Schools may be on record against organized prayer, but apparently few, if any, have outlawed voluntary prayer, he said.

On May 31, 25 Jewish and non-Jewish groups, including the Jewish War Veterans of America, the Synagogue Council of America, Americans for Democratic Action and People for the American Way, wrote House members, promising “an intense campaign in the Senate” to defeat the Dannemeyer amendment to the education bill.

The groups called the amendment “unnecessary, unwise and unconstitutional.”

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