Constitutional Amendment Permitting School Prayer

The appropriate role of religion in public schooling has long been controversial. At the time of the nation’s founding, few people believed that education could be divorced from religion; religious instruction was viewed as being indispensable for the inculcation of virtue and morality in children. The founders of the nineteenth century common school movement believed, however, that important religious values could be isolated from specific dogmas and tenets that separated denominations and could be taught in a manner acceptable to children of all faiths. The leaders of the common schools—Horace Mann being the most notable figure—were all Protestants, so the ‘‘nonsectarian’’ instruction—teacher-led prayer and readings from the King James version of the Bible— had a distinctly Protestant tone. Early opposition to school prayer and Bible reading came from Catholics, Jews, and a handful of freethinkers, but their attacks on the religious exercises led only to intransigence among education leaders and occasional violence between Protestant nativists and Catholic immigrants. Over time, particularly in cities with large immigrant populations, public schools began to moderate or even dispense with organized religious exercises.

The first attempt to preserve the practices of prayer and Bible reading through a constitutional amendment occurred in the ill-fated Blaine Amendment of 1876. Although the primary focus of the Blaine Amendment was to prevent the payment of public funds to parochial schools, the proposal also contained a provision authorizing school boards to retain school prayer and Bible readings. That latter provision was included in reaction to an 1872 decision by the Ohio Supreme Court affirming the Cincinnati school board’s ban on school prayer and Bible reading (Minor v. Board of Education). In 1888, again in response to concerns of Protestant leaders that public schools were dispensing with the religious exercises, Congress held hearings on a constitutional amendment proposed by Senator Henry W. Blair that would have prohibited the removal of prayer and Bible reading. The proposal died in committee.

During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, a handful of state courts struck down devotional school prayer and Bible reading as violative of state constitutional provisions (Wisconsin 1890, Nebraska 1903, Illinois 1910); however, the majority of challenges to such practices failed, with state courts finding the practices constitutional.

The late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century challenges to prayer and Bible reading were based on state constitutional provisions, coming before the incorporation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause in 1947. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a practice of allowing school children to be released from class for religious instruction by nonschool personnel (McCollum v. Board of Education). Four years later, however, the high court stepped back from its controversial decision and upheld ‘‘release time’’ for religious instruction, provided it occurred off school premises (Zorach v. Clauson).

Based on the long-standing practice of religious exercises in public schools, therefore, the Supreme Court’s 1962 and 1963 decisions holding prayer and Bible reading to be a violation of the Establishment Clause were extremely controversial. Several members of Congress, led by Representative Frank Becker (R-NY), proposed constitutional amendments to preserve school prayer and Bible reading. Congress held hearings on the ‘‘Becker Amendment’’ in 1964, and initially the measure seemed destined for passage. Only a highly organized effort by mainstream Protestant and Jewish groups, led by the National Council of Churches, defeated the proposed amendment in committee. Subsequent proposed amendments by Senator Everett Dirksen (R-IL) in 1966 and Representative Chambers Wylie (R-OH) in 1970 also died in committee.

Time failed to moderate opposition to the Court’s school prayer decisions among religious conservatives. During the late 1970s, a resurgent Religious Right, led by evangelicals Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority and Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network, put a school prayer amendment at the top of their agenda along with an amendment to reverse the Court’s 1973 abortion decision (Roe v. Wade). Candidate Ronald Reagan expressed sympathy with a prayer amendment and, after his election as President, Reagan issued a call in 1982 for an amendment: ‘‘Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit individual or group prayer in public schools or other public institutions. No person shall be required by the United States or any State to participate in prayer.’’ Initially, passage of the ‘‘Reagan Amendment’’ seemed assured. However, moderate Republican Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR), supported by mainstream religious groups such as the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, proposed a compromise statute, the Equal Access Act, which authorized student religious club meetings in public secondary schools. After moderate evangelical groups including the Christian Legal Society and the National Association of Evangelicals signaled their support, Congress enacted the Equal Access Act instead of the Reagan Amendment.

Despite the resolution of the Equal Access Act, agitation for a constitutional amendment to protect prayer and Bible reading has resurfaced occasionally, particularly after controversial court decisions. In 1992 and 2000, the Supreme Court struck down prayers at public school graduation ceremonies and athletic events, respectively (Lee v. Weisman; Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe). Those holdings, and similar holdings by lower courts, elicited proposed constitutional amendments in Congress by Representatives Henry Hyde (R-IL) and Ernest Istook (R-OK), including one to strip the federal courts of jurisdiction to hear school prayer controversies. To date all such proposals have failed.

STEVEN K. GREEN

References and Further Reading

  • Alley. Robert S. Without a Prayer: Religious Expression in Public Schools. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1996.
  • DelFattore, Joan. The Fourth R: Conflicts Over Religion in America’s Public Schools. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
  • Green, Steven K. ‘‘Evangelicals and the Becker Amendment: A Lesson in Church-State Moderation.’’ Journal of Church and State 33 (1991): 541–567.
  • Ravitch, Frank S. School Prayer and Discrimination. Boston: Northeastern University Press,1999.
  • Stokes, Anson Phelps, and Leo Pfeffer. Church and State in the United States. New York: Harper and Row, Pub., 1964.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962)
  • Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992)
  • McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948)
  • Minor v. Board of Education, 23 Ohio St. 211 (1872)
  • Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000)
  • School District of Abington Township, 374 U.S. 203 (1963) Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306 (1952)

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