The call for a school prayer amendment to the U.S. Constitution has bounced around the country from courthouse to courthouse this spring. And on May 28 it landed in Ravalli County where commissioners dutifully added their names.
The amendment in question is House Joint Resolution 81, the third attempt in as many years by Rep. Ernest J.
Istook (R–Okla.). Introduced in December, the measure is pending in a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee.
In 1998, Istook managed to marshal a vote and received a simple majority. For the amendment to succeed, a two-thirds supermajority would be required in both houses of Congress, in addition to ratification by three-quarters of the states.
The prospects for another vote this session don’t look good, says Micha Swafford, Istook’s press secretary. And while resolutions such as the one in Ravalli County add no practical momentum, supporters of the measure remain optimistic.
“Our contention has always been that Americans support this,” Swafford says. “The polls show 85 percent.”
Ravalli County commissioners approached the issue carefully after being solicited by their peers in Washington County, Penn. According to the minutes of their meeting, commissioners discussed the stance of the Supreme Court and Commissioner Alan Thompson argued that there is no Constitutional separation of church and state.
“It is merely a resolution of support,” Thompson says. “This merely says that you’re allowed to recognize religion on public property, including schools.”
The theory that such an amendment would restore religious rights, and that its absence imperils the freedom of expression, isn’t persuasive to Scott Crichton, director the Montana American Civil Liberties Union. He argues that the simple endorsement of school prayer would be coercive, even if various believers agree on the content.
“You can believe in nothing [in the U.S.],” Crichton says. “And having to put your fingers in your ears is not equal treatment.”
In 2000, the Supreme Court heard arguments brought by two families in Texas, one Catholic and the other Mormon, regarding prayers recited before football games by an elected student chaplain. Previously, a District Court judge had OK’ed the practice as long as the prayer was non-denominational. The High Court disagreed, ruling that religious liberties are damaged if a school elects a student chaplain and provides a public address system, since the beliefs of the majority would be delivered upon the minorities. However, the court reaffirmed the right to school prayer “in any private context at any time,” such as before a test or during bible club meetings.
But individual and voluntary prayer isn’t the goal, says Swafford, because the exclusion of public prayer infringes on the rights of Christians. Thus Resolution 81 which would attempt an end-run around the Supreme Court.
“The only recourse we’re left with is a Constitutional amendment,” Swafford says.