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January 20, 1995 - Image 82

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1995-01-20

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School. Prayer Battle
Opens New Congress

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Washington (JTA) - The first
shots in the battle over prayer in
America's public schools were
fired on the opening day of the
104th Congress.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.,
outflanked his Republican col-
leagues by introducing a consti-
tutional amendment that would
bring prayer back to the schools.
"I hope to end a three-decades-
long tyranny of the minority in
denying to the majority of Amer-
icans" the right to pray in school,
Mr. Byrd said on the Senate floor
as he introduced the measure.
Later in the day, Sens. Jesse
Helms, R-N.C., and Strom Thur-
mond, R-S.C., presented school
prayer amendments of their own
as part of their traditional open-
ing day flurry to introduce legis-
lation. Mr. Helms also
co-sponsored Mr. Byrd's bill. In
the House, Rep. Bill. Emerson, R-
Mo., joined the fray, introducing
a similar measure.
The moves drew sharp criti-
cism from Jewish organizations,
almost all of which vehemently
oppose amending the constitu-
tion to include a provision for
school prayer.
After a concerted lobbying ef-
fort by Jewish groups and others,
the last Congress defeated legis-
lation that would have opened
the door to prayer in school. Much
of that legislation was led by Mr.
Now that the Republicans con-
trol both the House and Senate,
opponents of school prayer are
preparing for the most serious
threat on the issue since the
Supreme Court banned prayer in
public schools in 1962.
"This is a very real campaign
and a very real threat," said Mark
Pelavin., Washington represen-
tative of the American Jewish
"Byrd is a formidable ally as
well as formidable opponent,"
Mr. Pelavin said.
Ironically, Mr. Byrd recently
drew praise and support from
Jewish organizations in Wash-
ington for his lead in opposing a
balanced budget amendment.
Most Jewish organizations also
oppose a balanced budget amend-
According to Mr. Byrd's' pro-
posed amendment on school
prayer, nothing in the constitu-
tion "shall be construed to pro-
hibit or require voluntary prayer
in public schools, or to prohibit or
require voluntary prayer at pub-
lic school extracurricular activi-
"As a Democrat, I'm sorry to
see that a Democrat is making
this a key issue when [Speaker

of the House Newt] Gingrich him-
self has decided to lay it aside for
a while," said Hyman Book-
binder, a longtime Jewish activist
who serves as chairman of the ad-
vocacy committee of the Nation-
al Jewish Democratic Council.
Although Mr. Byrd's move
came as a surprise, his position
on prayer and religious issues is
well-known. Mr. Byrd joined Mr.
Helms in voting against the Re-
ligious Freedom Restoration Act
in the last Congress. The act,
which eventually became law,
guarantees freedom of religious
NJDC, like most Jewish orga-
nizations, has begun to mobilize
its members to oppose a school
prayer amendment.
Although other school prayer
advocates like Mr. Helms and
Mr. Thurmond use stronger lan-
guage in their proposals as well
as threats to cut federal educa-
tion funding to guarantee the
right of children to pray in school
Mr. Byrd's proposal will have the
same ultimate effect, opponents

The Supreme Court
banned prayer in
public schools in

"This would change the entire
church-state landscape and
would isolate and intimidate Jew-
ish students," said Rabbi David
Saperstein, director of the Reli-
gious Action Center of Reform Ju-
Mr. Byrd's amendment would
open the door for students to use
intercom systems to offer prayers,
teacher-led prayers and prayer
at school functions such as grad-
uations, Rabbi Saperstein said.
"The lesson we have learned is
that we have to be vigilant," said
Jess Hordes, Washington direc-
tor of the Anti-Defamation
League. "There will be many ve-
hicles and methods by which
members try to get school
Despite the race to introduce
school prayer action on the Con-
gress' first day, no serious debate
or vote is expected in the short
Mr. Gingrich has pledged to
vote on a school prayer amend-
ment by July 4.
But school prayer has been rel-
egated to the back burner as the
Republican majority focuses its
attention on fiscal reform.

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