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School Prayer Policy of the Republican 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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Although members of the Republican Party as a whole have been more inclined to support a school prayer amendment than their Democratic brethren, the party has by no means stood unified on the issue.
School prayer has split Republicans in Congress largely along conservative-moderate lines, but that is not to say all conservatives support it while all moderates do not. On an issue as deeply personal as religion, elected Republicans -- including both those in Congress and in past administrations -- have often been impelled by personal reasons, ideologies, or beliefs to either support or denounce freedom of prayer in public schools. 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 liberal, Protestant, and Jewish organizations kept proponents from amassing the required votes to secure passage.
Reagan's proposal quickly divided elected the Republican Party as the Senate debated the president's proposal in 1984. Ultra-conservative Republican Senators Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a long-time supporter of school prayer, and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah played forceful roles in the drive to pass the legislation. They were backed by such other conservatives as Alan Simpson of Wyoming and William V. Roth of Delaware.
Among the conservatives who opposed the school prayer plan was Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Many moderate Republicans fought against Reagan's amendment. Both of Oregon's moderate Senators, Bob Packwood and Mark O. Hatfield, argued against it, as did John C. Danforth of Missouri and William S. Cohen of Maine. Lowell P. Weicker, a moderate-to-liberal Republican who later served as the Independent governor of Connecticut, strongly contested the amendment throughout the debate. Slade Gorton of Washington also resisted it.
These moderate conservatives argued that the amendment would render prayer insignificant by diluting it to serve the diverse religions represented in America's schools or would be used as religious indoctrination by the dominant majority. Some also maintained that it would violate the country's tradition of separation between church and state. Besides, they said, it would be pragmatically impossible to implement such legislation.
The conservatives cited the omnipresence of God in the classroom and the right of students to pray to Him. And they rebutted the moderates 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-conservative Republicans 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 has received the blessing of ultra-conservative 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.
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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