Constitutional Amendment on School Prayer

Document Date: March 11, 2002

Constitutional Amendment on School Prayer or Moment of Silence

Surprising even his staunchest supporters with the swiftness of his action, the House Speaker-elect, Newt Gingrich, this week announced his intention to push immediately for adoption of his proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution “relating to voluntary school prayer.” The Gingrich proposal states:

“Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit individual or group prayer in public schools or other public institutions. No person shall be required by the United States or by any State to participate in prayer. Neither the United States nor any State shall compose the words of any prayer to be said in public schools.”

In spite of the caveats in the last two sentences, if adopted the amendment would allow public officials, including teachers, to dictate how, when and where school children and others should pray, thus undermining one of the core values of the First Amendment: the complete freedom of religious conscience through the nonestablishment of religion. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly said that officially organized prayer is coercive in a school environment, even when designated as “voluntary.”

A constitutional amendment requires the approval of two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress and then of the legislatures of three-quarters of the states. Gingrich has announced his plans to hold public hearings around the country this winter and spring — presumably in locations thought to be most receptive to the idea. He hopes to have a vote on the issue by July 1.

President Clinton, apparently concluding from the election results that he must appease the new Republican majority, caved in almost immediately. First, he announced that he was open to working with Congressional Republicans on a school prayer amendment. The next day, the Administration said the President had been misunderstood, and that what he had in mind was a federal statute permitting “moments of silence” in the schools. Such a statute would, however, be susceptible to constitutional challenge. At best, it is unnecessary since teachers already have the authority to ask their students to be quiet. At worst, it is organized prayer by stealth, as recognized by the Supreme Court in its decision in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) in which the Court struck down Alabama’s moment of silence law.

The mindless notion that serious social problems can be solved by prayer in schoolrooms, instead of by thoughtful analysis and sufficient resources, appeals to no one but the radical religious right. Should it actually pass, a constitutional amendment on school prayer would mark the first time in our nation’s history that the original Bill of Rights would be amended — a striking departure from traditional American values that would set a dangerous precedent.


  • Newt Gingrich is playing politics with something sacrosanct: each American’s right to decide whether, when, where, how and with whom to pray.
  • We do not need a school prayer amendment. Every child in the United States already has the right to pray in school on a voluntary basis — it’s called the First Amendment. For more than 200 years, it has worked so well that in spite of tremendous religious diversity, we have more religious liberty in this country than anywhere else on earth. That diversity would be endangered, not enhanced, by an amendment that would promote organized school prayer.
  • Why are conservatives, who say they want to get the government off our backs, trying to interfere with something as personal and private as religious conviction? The truly traditional American value is the freedom to pursue any religion, or no religion, without government interference or coercion.
  • This proposal is already creating just the kind of divisiveness that the framers of the Constitution were seeking to prevent when they adopted the First Amendment.
  • Leave the Bill of Rights alone. If the school prayer amendment is adopted, it will be the first time in our history that the original Bill of Rights has been altered. The Bill of Rights is supposed to protect our fundamental liberties from political winds. It reflects our deepest values and most traditional beliefs. Once we start playing politics with the Constitution, there’s no telling where it will stop.

Opposition to school-sponsored prayer is a bedrock principle for the American Civil Liiberties Union. As national board policy #81(a) states in part: “The ACLU believes that any program of religious indoctrination — direct or indirect — in the public schools or by use of public resources is a violation of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state and must be opposed.”

The policy states further (#81(b)) that the ACLU “opposes the infusion of other types of religious practices and standards into the public schools. These include such practices as baccalaureate exercises in the form of religious services, prayer meetings at athletic events, the taking of a religious census of pupils … and the profession of religious observance or belief as a consideration in the evaluation and promotion of teachers.” [1932, 1962]

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” With these words, the framers of the Constitution established one of the central principles of American government — that religious liberty can flourish only when the state leaves religion alone.

Under the Gingrich amendment, public officials would be authorized to indoctrinate impressionable young people into an officially endorsed religion. What is tyranny, if not that? Children, who are required to attend school by law, should not be placed in the position of having to choose between pressures from their teachers and peers and their parents’ instructions on religious practice. Where official school prayer has been permitted, the result has not been pretty: Documentation is abundant of non-conforming students being called “little athiests” by their teachers, being beaten up or subjected to taunts and classroom jokes. This amendment would breed religious intolerance.

Fifty years of Supreme Court jurisprudence has maintained this “wall of separation between Church and State” so that the United States is a model of religious freedom for the world. The fundamental principle behind the Supreme Court’s rulings has been that public schools may not take sides in matters of religion and may not endorse a particular religious perspective or any religion at all.

As the Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette in 1943:

“The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.

One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”

The framers made it difficult to amend the Constitution precisely because of our “checks and balances” form of government. Should the Bill of Rights actually be amended, it will be the first time in American history. And unlike the effort to pass an Equal Rights Amendment, which we supported, the school prayer amendment would remove an existing right, rather than confer a right on an unprotected group.

Proponents of a school prayer amendment claim reintroducing prayer will check the country’s” declining moral values.” Some, like former Secretary of Education William Bennett blame the 1962 decision, Engel v. Vitale, banning official prayer from public schools, for everything from low SAT scores to high teenage pregnancy rates. But many educators and other experts tell us that these problems flow from the enormous and increasing gulf in wealth and opportunity and education, between the richest and poorest people in our society. A one-minute prayer or moment of silence in school everyday will do nothing to change that.

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