School Prayer Opponents Gain Victory, but the Battle is Still Far from over

In what has been described as an unparalleled grass roots effort to combat school prayer, Jewish groups have scored a major victory with the Senate defeat of a measure designed to cut funds to schools that prevent prayer.

Last week’s narrow 53-47 defeat of the amendment came just six months after the same amendment, introduced by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), was adopted as part of another piece of legislation.

After intense lobbying by Jewish groups and others who favor a strong separation between church and state, lawmakers removed the language from that legislation. The move prompted Helms to reintroduce the amendment as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is now under consideration in the Senate.

Despite the victory, opponents of school prayer say the push must continue in the wake of a surge in activity by school prayer advocates across the country.

In Mississippi, lawmakers recently passed a measure allowing prayer in schools. And last month, a major court decision in the nation’s capital cleared the way for a voter referendum on prayer in Washington schools.

“People are looking at prayer in the schools as a panacea” for the country’s ills, but “we can’t allow fundamental protections to be destroyed,” said David Friedman, regional director of the Washington office of the Anti-Defamation League.

Lobbying against the Helms amendment represented “the most significant push on a church-state issue in at least the last five years,” according to Michael Lieberman, associate director and counsel of the ADL’s Washington office.

“Our backs were up against the wall,” Lieberman said, noting that back in February, only 22 senators opposed the amendment.

Helms had called for a cutoff of federal funds to states and school districts that “deny or effectively prevent participation in constitutionally protected prayer in public schools by individuals on a voluntary basis.”

‘AN UNNECESSARY AND PERNICIOUS MEASURE’

During the floor debate in the Senate last week, Helms stressed that his amendment “does not mandate school prayer” and “does not require schools to write any particular prayer,” but would protect students’ individual rights.

According to the conservative senator, the amendment would “prevent school districts from establishing official policies or procedures with the intent of prohibiting students from exercising their constitutionally protected right to lead — or participate in — voluntary prayer in their schools.”

David Kahn, president of the American Jewish Congress, which worked to defeat the Helms amendment, said in a statement that Helms’ action was “an unnecessary and pernicious measure which threatened two treasured American values — separation of church and state and local control of education.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, also viewed the Helms proposal as dangerous to schools.

“Senator Helms’ amendment would have placed widespread financial burdens on schools through total funding cutoffs, lawsuits and legal fees — potentially millions of dollars that could far better be used in improving the quality of education in our nation’s schools,” Saperstein said in a statement.

While defeating the Helms amendment, the Senate adopted, with a 93-7 vote, a competing measure that could only bar funds to a state or school district if a federal court rules that it has “willfully violated” a court order to allow constitutionally protected prayer. The amendment was offered by Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.).

Because of the legal battles that the amendment would require in determining “willful violation,” opponents of school prayer say they do not see this as a threat to their interests.

In Mississippi, meanwhile, opponents of school prayer are legally challenging the new law that requires public schools to permit invocations, benedictions and nonsectarian, non-proselytizing, student-initiated voluntary prayer at all school events.

Predicting that the lawsuit will go all the way to the Supreme Court, Marc Stern, co-director of the Commission on Law and Social Action of the American Jewish Congress, said the challenge will be “useful politically” and “show the other side that it’s a two-way street, that they will be challenged.” While the legal battle in Mississippi has just begun, school prayer advocates in Washington, D.C., have begun to collect signatures to put a similar measure on the ballot as early as next April.

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