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School Prayer Policy of the Democratic Party
By Steve Hoenisch
Last updated on July 29, 2004
Copyright 1996-2008 www.Criticism.Com
This essay appears in The Encyclopedia of the American Democratic and Republican Parties, published by the International Encyclopedia Society. The encyclopedia won the Choice Outstanding Academic Book Award in 1997.
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Members of the Democratic Party have been far less inclined to support school prayer than their Republican brethren, with the majority of the party strongly aligned against it. One faction within the Democratic Party, however, has included some divergent members who favor an amendment to allow prayer in public schools: Southern conservatives.
Yet it should be noted that on an issue as deeply personal as religion, elected Democrats -- including both those in Congress and in past administrations -- have often been impelled by personal reasons, ideologies, or beliefs to either support or denounce school prayer. Their positions have also been swayed by historical or legal arguments.
The issue, long at the margins of U.S. political history, took center stage after the 1982 election of conservative Republican President Ronald Reagan, who proposed an amendment to remove the legal barrier to prayer in public schools, making him the first chief executive to turn the country's attention to the issue. The Supreme Court banned prayer from public schools in the 1960s.
After Reagan's proposal, some of the most intensive lobbying of the 1980s took place as right-wing Christian fundamentalists rallied behind the amendment. But fierce opposition from Democrats and liberal, Protestant, and Jewish organizations kept proponents from amassing the required votes to secure passage.
Leading the school prayer charge for conservative Southern Democrats was Senator Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina. He argued that the court rulings of the 1960s banning school prayer were a misinterpretation of the Constitution, necessitating an amendment to neutralize what he and other conservatives saw as a hostile government policy toward religion. Yet for many Democrats, protecting the sanctity of the Constitution outweighed any personal inclinations for favoring school prayer.
The majority of Senate Democrats forcefully opposed Reagan's proposal. Senator Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio played a strong role for the Democrats in criticizing the amendment. The Democrats maintained that it would violate the country's tradition of separation between church and state and that the Constitution should be amended only in the most clear-cut cases and for the most pressing reasons. Senator Bill Bradley, Democrat of New Jersey, summed up the opposition of many Democrats when he stated that no prayer would ever be found acceptable for the array of diverse religions represented in America's schools. Other Democrats voiced fears that school prayer would be used as religious indoctrination by a community's dominant majority. Besides, they said, the amendment would be pragmatically impossible to implement such legislation.
Conservative Republicans, the chief supporters of the amendment, cited the omnipresence of God in the classroom and the right of students to pray to Him. And they rebutted the Democrats and moderate Republicans by maintaining that local communities could be entrusted to resolve the problem of implementing the amendment and the possibility of trivializing prayer. They contended that the federal government should not place limits of expression on local communities.
Although Congress rejected the school prayer amendment, it passed the Equal Access Act of 1984, which prohibits school districts from discriminating against high school religious clubs. Religious-right lobbyists and ultra-conservatives viewed the act as a partial victory.
In the mid 1990s, the Christian Coalition revived the issue of school prayer, pushing a Religious Equality Amendment to the Constitution that would allow expression of religion in such public forums as schools. The amendment received the blessing of ultra-conservative Republican Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the Speaker of the House, and his more moderate Republican colleague Robert Dole of Kansas, the Senate Majority Leader and a 1996 presidential candidate. The Democratic administration of President Bill Clinton and most Democratic Party members opposed it.
Bacon, Donald C.; Davidson, Roger H.; Keller, Morton; editors. The Encyclopedia of the United States Congress, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Fenwick, Lynda Beck. Should the Children Pray: A Historical, Judicial, and Political Examination of Public School Prayer, Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 1989.
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