By David Kurlander
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem on Monday announced proposed legislation to bring a daily moment of “voluntary prayer” into South Dakota public schools. Noem’s bill reflects a larger push by Republican political figures to bring religion into civic life, a trend that Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman explored on this week’s Now & Then episode, “God & Morality in American Politics.” The movement to restore prayer in public schools initially gained traction in the early 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan tried to push through a constitutional amendment to bring worship back to the classroom.
On May 6th, 1982, President Reagan hosted a National Day of Prayer at the White House. Speaking in the Rose Garden, Reagan signaled his intention to propose a constitutional amendment to bring prayer back to American public schools. “Well-meaning Americans in the name of freedom have taken freedom away,” the President said. “For the sake of religious tolerance, they’ve forbidden religious practice in our public classrooms.”
100 religious leaders listened to Reagan’s address. Among them was Reverend Jerry Falwell, the president of the Moral Majority. Falwell’s activist group had exploded in the three years since its 1979 founding, registering 4 million conservative voters in 1980 alone and often receiving $1 million in monthly donations. “I think it is the light at the end of the tunnel we have all hoped, worked, and prayed for,” Falwell exclaimed.
Eleven days after Reagan’s speech, on May 17th, 1982, Reagan called on Congress to take up his prayer amendment. The 37-word proposal read, “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.”
Reagan’s push was a response to a 20-year-old ruling in the 1962 Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale. The Court had ruled that New York’s morning prayer for public schools violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Justice Hugo Black wrote an impassioned majority opinion, arguing, “By using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents’ prayer, the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause.”
Proponents of school prayer immediately expressed shock at the Court’s decision. Republican New York Representative Frank Becker called the decision “the most tragic in the history of the United States,” while segregationist Georgia Senator Herman Talmadge said the decision “numbed the conscience and shocked the highest sensibilities of the nation.”
The uproar soon subsided. As religion-influenced “New Right” conservatism surged in the early 1970s, however, opposition to the ruling became more widespread. In 1973, the Catholic Church came out in support of a constitutional amendment not unlike Reagan’s eventual proposal. By 1981, a Los Angeles Times poll found that 78% of Americans favored “organized prayer” in schools. And, of course, there was Falwell.
Over the summer of 1982, Falwell’s Moral Majority sent out a mailer to their supporters. They called Reagan’s efforts a “major campaign not only to put prayer back in our public schools but to also expose the Senators and Congressmen who are opposing our children’s right to pray.” The mailing asked for “a sacrificial gift of $100, $50, or even $25” to fund “America’s last chance to get prayer back in our schools.”
Reagan and Falwell’s legislative allies took up the call. In the 1981-1982 session of Congress alone, members of Congress introduced 13 bills and nine constitutional amendments favoring school prayer.
The most promising bill emerged from the pen of far-right North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who proposed aggressive legislation that would in effect strip jurisdiction over “voluntary” school prayer from the federal courts, instead of utilizing Reagan’s preferred constitutional amendment.
In early September, Helms hit a roadblock: The Department of Justice sounded the alarm about the constitutional dubiousness of the Helms approach. Attorney General William French Smith said that Helms’s plan made ”exceptions” to Supreme Court jurisdiction in the ”core functions” of the court ”as an independent and equal branch in our system of separation of powers.”
With Smith’s caution in mind, Reagan remained largely neutral on the Helms plan, signaling that he would be happy with any action on school prayer.
Then, on September 17th, another setback for school prayer: Senate Democrats began filibustering Helms’s bill, which the Senator had sneakily tied to a raise in the federal debt ceiling and grouped with anti-abortion legislation.
The next day, Reagan used his weekly radio address to urge forward motion. He opened his address by acknowledging the first day of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah: “Today, on one of the holiest days of one of our great religious faiths, I urge the Members of the Congress to set aside their differences and act on this simple, fair, and long-overdue measure to help make us ‘one Nation under God’ again.” Reagan appealed directly to the Senate Majority Leader, Republican Tennessee Senator Howard Baker, to bring the amendment to the floor.
In a Democratic retort to Reagan’s radio message, Colorado Senator Gary Hart argued that Reagan’s focus on religious issues was a smokescreen for the early failures of Reaganomics. “The issue is not prayer, or our belief in God,” Hart said. “This issue is economic recovery and economic opportunity. That is our prayer.”
Five days after Reagan’s radio address, on September 23rd, 1982, the Republican-controlled Senate debate ending the Democratic filibuster on Helms’s proposal. On the floor, Senate Democrats portrayed Helms’s bill as a constitutional threat. Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers helped to lead the charge, saying, “Maybe this is not the gravest crisis that has ever come before the Senate, but it is one of the gravest and the least understood.”
Bumpers also singled out Helms’s media campaign against opponents to his bill: “His presses are running, his letters are going out. He is going to go after all the troglodytes in the Senate who are opposed to school prayer.”
At day’s end, Republicans failed to muster the 60 votes necessary to break the Democratic filibuster. The move to table the bill fell, somewhat ironically, to Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, the arguable progenitor of movement conservatism but a foe of the Moral Majority. “This is my 48th wedding anniversary and my wife is madder than hell that I’m not with her in Arizona,” Goldwater complained. “I’ve got to be here doing what Jesse wants to do.”
To make matters worse for school prayer advocates, Majority Leader Baker ultimately decided not to bring up Reagan’s amendment, despite his personal support for the initiative. “At some point this has to end,” he explained of the tension over school prayer, “and this is that point.”
Democratic Montana Senator Max Baucus echoed Bumpers in calling out the New Right: “Let this debate be a signal they cannot end-run the Constitution.” New York’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it even more bluntly, saying, “We have beaten them. We have broken the radical right.”
Helms, for his part blamed the White House: “I don’t know of a single vote the White House obtained for us on the school prayer or abortion issue.” Howard Phillips, the leader of the Falwell-adjacent Conservative Caucus, concurred: “The president’s expressed neutrality turned what should have been a winner into a loser. What a tragedy!”
After the vote, Reagan spoke to magazine editors about his continued passion for implementing the agenda of the New Right. “Some of the press began speculating that somehow recent attempts on some of the social issues, such as the place of prayer in school and the abortion problem, were just a political gimmick and now we’ve discarded that we’re moving on to something else,” Reagan began. “I believe the country is hungry for a spiritual revival…and we’re not going to give up on those social issues that have to do with the morals of the country.”
On September 25th, Reagan followed up on his pledge by hosting a School Prayer Day event in the State Dining Room of the White House. Falwell was there. Helms, despite his frustration with the administration, showed up. Also attending was Rosey Grier, a former defensive lineman for the St. Louis Rams and the New York Giants.
A Black man and a vocal supporter of Civil Rights, Grier had long been associated with liberal causes. He served as Bobby Kennedy’s bodyguard during the 1968 presidential campaign, grabbing the gun from Kennedy’s assassin Sirhan Sirhan. Grier, a talented guitarist and singer, recorded a tribute single to Kennedy, “People Make the World.” He also advocated for expressions of non-traditional masculinity, publishing a guide to needlepointing and recording “It’s Alright to Cry,” for actress Marlo Thomas’s influential Free to be You and Me children’s album.
In 1979, however, Grier became a born-again Christian and devoted his life to spreading the gospel, including in schools. Grier’s defection further showcased the depth of the New Right’s influence, even as Congress limited the movement’s legislative success.
Grier looked on as Reagan excoriated his opponents. “Unfortunately, in the last two decades we’ve experienced an onslaught of such twisted logic that if Alice were visiting America, she might think she’d never left Wonderland,” Reagan complained.
After his remarks, Reagan lit candles held by three 8-year-olds. The flames were used to light other candles at a pro-school prayer 500-person National Mall ceremony that evening.
Reagan and the New Right would continue to push the school prayer amendment and Helms-style legislative alternatives for the next six years. President George H.W. Bush also unsuccessfully took up the fight. The current GOP-led crusade, however—from Noem’s prayer push, to Michael Flynn’s call for a single national religion, to Representative Lauren Boebert’s rampant Islamophobia—signals a dramatic renewal of early-1980s fault lines.
For more on the school prayer debate, read University of Richmond Humanities Professor Robert S. Alley’s 1996 Without a Prayer: Religious Expression in Public Schools.
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