By Steve Suitts
Vol. 1, No. 8, 1979, pp. 23-24
In early April Jesse Helms of North Carolina appeared on the virtually deserted floor of the U.S. Senate and, after receiving recognition to debate the issue of a separate federal department of education, introduced an amendment to return prayer to the nation’s public schools. The amendment proposed to legislate away the federal court’s jurisdiction to hear cases involving state laws permitting voluntary prayer in public schools.
The unexpected amendment created a long, intense debate which ended on April 5 with the approval of the measure in a vote of 47-37 and the quick recess of the Senate until April 9 so that Democratic leaders and opponents of the amendment would have time to confer.
When the Senate returned on Monday, April 9, the opponents’ strategy was to remove the amendment from the president’s bill on education to pending legislation relating to the Supreme Court jurisdiction. Helms and his South Carolina colleague, Strom Thurmond, protested that the transfer would kill the amendment since as a part of the Supreme Court legislation it would be sent to the House of Judiciary Committee where chairman Peter Rodino of New York, as Helms said, “would bury it so deep that it will require 14 bulldozers just to scratch the surface.” On a close vote, the transfer was approved and now the measure is not expected to pass Congress.
The school prayer has been an issue in the South since 1962 when the Supreme Court banned official, organized prayers. Yet, not since Mississippi’s James 0. Eastland presided over hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1963 to overturn the “Godless Supreme Court’s opinion” had Congress witnessed a Southerner lead such a serious parliamentary charge to restore school prayers. While efforts to allow school prayer had been considered by Congress in 1971, and earlier in 1968, when Republican minority leader Everett Dirksen failed by only nine votes to have Congress approve a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision banning official school prayer, most of the Southern delegation in both houses were among the strong supporters of both efforts.
The April vote showed that little has changed in the solid South’s support. With Thurmond proclaiming that “here in the nation’s capital, we who make the laws, approve of prayers . . . , then what is wrong with letting little children in schools . . .,” seventeen Southern senators voted for the amendment, four were absent or did not vote, and only one opposed the measure.
The single vote against the amendment was cast by Arkansas Democrat Dale Bumpers. While Florida’s senator Lawton Childs voted to kill the amendment by tabling it, when the Helms amendment came up for an actual vote he supported it.
The four senators who were absent or not voting were Don Stewart of Alabama, Herman Talmadge of. Georgia, Russell Long of Louisiana, and Howard Baker of Tennessee. All others voted to remove the power of the courts to interfere with states wanting to authorize prayers.
The seventeen Southern votes, of course, gave the Helms amendment
its margin of victory. As in the past, Southern Democratic senators departed with the Democratic majority from other regions and voted with the majority of Republicans in the Senate who supported the measure.
While another Southerner had no vote, President Jimmy Carter also expressed opposition to the amendment. At a news conference the president stated:
My preference is that Congress not get involved in the question mandating prayer in the schools. I am a Christian; 1 happen to be a Baptist. I believe that the subject of prayer in the schools ought to be decided between a person individually and privately and God. The Supreme Court has ruled on this issue and I personally don’t think that the Congress ought to pass any legislation requiring or permitting prayer.
Sometimes a student might object even to a so-called voluntary prayer when it’s publicly coordinated. It might be very embarrassing to a young person to say, “I want to be excused from the room because I don’t want to pray.”
In the April 19 vote removing the Helms amendment from the education bill, four Democratic Southerners apparently decided that the President was right and rejoined. Still, Lloyd Benson (Texas), Lawton Childs and Dick Stone (Florida), and Sam Nunn (Georgia) would still be able to claim that they supported prayers since they did vote to approve the amendment.
TheArkansas Gazette editorially bemoaned the fact that the Senate had spent so much time on an amendment it called “vintage demogogery.” While accusing its own senator David Pryor of “throwing kisses to the peanut gallery” for his support of the Helms amendment, the editorial called the measure “another effort to subvert the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights.”
The Southerner who wrote the 1962 Supreme Court opinion first banning official prayer in schools, Hugo Black stated it another way: “it is neither sacriligious not anti-religious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves In 1979, however, Black’s opinion still finds little support among the South’s political leaders.