The Becker amendment was one of the more significant congressional attempts to overturn an unpopular holding of the U.S. Supreme Court. Congressman Frank Becker (R-NY) introduced the prayer and bible reading amendment of 1964, or ‘‘Becker amendment,’’ in response to two controversial Supreme Court decisions outlawing organized prayer and Bible reading in the nation’s public schools. Initially, when introduced, the Becker amendment had substantial congressional support and passage appeared likely. Ratification by three-fourths of the states seemed assured. The proposal stalled in legislative committee, however, and eventually died without a vote, primarily as a result of opposition from the religious community.
The impetus behind the Becker amendment lay in the public reaction to two Supreme Court decisions in 1962 and 1963. During the early 1960s, approximately one-half of the nation’s public schools conducted either daily or weekly religious exercises, often in the form of a short reading from the Bible (usually from the Protestant King James version) and a prayer given over the schools’ public address systems. Such ‘‘nonsectarian’’ exercises had been controversial since the mid-nineteenth century, particularly among Catholics, Jews, and other non-Protestants. Although a handful of state supreme courts had struck down such practices over the years, the majority of challenges had failed. In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a challenge to a New York law requiring public school students to repeat daily the following prayer, written by the state board of regents: ‘‘Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg They blessing upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country.’’ In an eight-to-one decision, Engel v. Vitale, the Court struck down the practice as a violation of the establishment clause, writing that ‘‘government should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves and to those the people choose to look to for religious guidance.’’
The Engel decision unleashed a public outcry, with public officials and religious leaders condemning the holding. In the weeks following the Engel decision, approximately seventy members of Congress, including Congressman Becker, introduced proposed constitutional amendments to permit religious exercises in public schools. The Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the proposals in July 1962, but took no action; by then the Court had granted review on two cases that considered the constitutionality of daily Bible readings and recitations of the Lord’s Prayer. The following year, in Abington Township School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett, the high court struck down the practices by the same eight-to-one vote.
The public outcry in reaction to the Schempp and Murray decisions was greater than had occurred following Engel. Evangelist Billy Graham and Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen condemned the holdings, while Senator Strom Thurman called the decisions ‘‘another major triumph of secularism and atheism which are bent on throwing God completely our of our national life.’’ The Schempp and Murray decisions provided renewed momentum for amendment proponents. Prior to the 1963 decisions, House Judiciary Committee Chair Emanuel Celler had opposed the proposed amendments and had refused to schedule a hearing. By the spring of 1964, Congressman Becker had gathered over 170 of the needed 218 signatures to have his proposed amendment discharged from the House Judiciary Committee, forcing Celler to hold hearings.
The final language of the Becker amendment, compiled from the various proposals, provided in part:
Nothing in this Constitution shall be deemed to prohibit the offering, reading from, or listening to prayers or biblical scriptures, if participation therein is on a voluntary basis, in any governmental or public school. . . . Nothing in this Constitution shall be deemed to prohibit making reference to belief in, reliance upon, or invoking the aid of God or a Supreme Being in any governmental or public document, proceeding, activity, currency, school [or] institution . . .
Congressman Becker worked tirelessly to build support for the amendment, and found natural allies among evangelical groups. Groups such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the fundamentalist International Council of Christian Churches organized grassroots support and sent their officials to testify in favor of the proposed amendment. Working in Becker’s favor was the fact that few members of Congress wanted to go on record as opposing prayer and Bible reading in the public schools.
Opponents of the proposed amendment, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League, recognized that the House Judiciary Committee would likely approve the Becker amendment if it came to a vote. These groups organized a coalition behind the public leadership of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs and the National Council of Churches (NCC). Rev. Dean Kelley of the NCC, a United Methodist minister, became the spokesperson for the coalition and quietly organized testimony from many of the nation’s religious leaders, including deans of leading seminaries. Most significant, Kelley was able to obtain testimony from several religious leaders with impeccable evangelical credentials. This testimony provided political coverage to wavering members of the committee, enabling Congressman Celler to allow the proposal to die without a committee vote. What had first appeared to be a significant threat to the First Amendment’s religion clauses was diffused primarily due to the efforts of religious groups.
STEVEN K. GREEN
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Abington Township School District v. Schemmp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963); Constitutional Amendment Permitting School Prayer; Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962)