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First, the first amendment has stood the test of time. For approximately 175 years it has served as a safeguard against the encroachment of either the church or the state into the realm of the other. There is no reason at this time to suppose that it will not continue to do so.
Second, the recent Supreme Court ruling does not forbid prayer in the public schools. It does rule that it is unlawful for any government agency to compose a prayer and require that it be used in public schools.
My first acquaintance with this decision was a newspaper headline "Supreme Court Outlaws Prayer in Public Schools.” This greatly disturbed me. But when later I read an analysis of the decision it was quite clear that what appeared, at first glance, to be a blow at religious freedom was in reality a blow in its favor. I then declared it to be the greatest single decision for the separation of church and state since the adoption of the first amendment.
In so ruling the Court said, “We think that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that in his country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a religious program carried on by the government." According to the Court an officially composed prayer by government constitutes an "establishment” of religion. This is expressly forbidden by the first amendment.
The Court was careful to point out that its action is not hostility toward religion or prayer. The decision pointed out that it is for the protection of religion and to guarantee its free exercise that the Court arrived at its conclusion. Said the Court, “It is neither sacrilegious nor antireligious 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 and to those the people choose to look to for religious guidance.”
The Supreme Court cited specific history, such as the Book of Common Prayer, to indicate that prayers officially composed or sanctioned lead to malfunctions in both the state and religion. It pointed out that such a history was the occasion for the first amendment being included in the Constitution. “Our founders were no more willing to let the content of their prayers and their privilege of praying whenever they pleased be influenced by the ballot box than they were to let these vital matters of personal conscience depend upon the succession of monarchs."
It is to strain the meaning of the first amendment beyond reasonable measure to say that the Court's ruling would forbid teachers to lead their pupils in prayer. This does not comprise a government agent or agency composing a prayer. It is the expression of one soul to God as he or she leads others to a like expression. The language of the Court's decision clearly implies that a prayer by a teacher, pupil, or minister is a "purely religious function" of "the people themselves” and/or of "those the people choose to look to for religious guidance."
Third, any amendment as proposed to the Constitution invites disaster in the area of the separation of church and state. Such an amendment or any change in the first amendment itself would tend to modify this principle. If an amendment today can state what the first amendment does not mean, there is no end to what future amendments can say that the first amendment does not mean. The result could well be to say in effect that it means nothing at all.
To change the first amendment to read that it prohibits “the recognition of an established church of any denomination, sect, or organized religious association” would make it mean that and nothing more. The Supreme Court, then, with justification could rule that the first amendment only forbade the establishing of a state church, but that it did not forbid the use of Federal funds for parochial schools, church-sponsored hospitals, or any other religious function short of recognizing one religious body over all others. Most religious groups would most likely refuse such funds while a few would welcome them. This would tend to put the Federal, State, and local governments in the position of favoring some religious groups to the disadvantage of others. The result would be an unofficial “established" church or churches.
The Hill-Burton Act which provides Federal grants to church-related hospitals is a case in point. The fact that this act has been amended to provide for loans to those religious groups which will not accept grants is but an accommodation. It still means that in effect favoritism is shown to certain groups to the detriment of others. To change the first amendment would tend to open the floodgates where now we have but a trickle.
Fourth, the proposed amendments are based upon a presupposition as to future decisions which may be rendered by the Supreme Court. Can we reasonably hold that this is a safe basis upon which to amend the Constitution? If so, is it not possible that, following such a procedure, we shall reduce the entire Constitution to a mere scrap of paper ?
Furthermore, to foresee the day when any reference to deity shall be removed from our national life is to go far afield with regard to the recent ruling of the Supreme Court. Justice Clark is reported in the news media as taking the unusual step of commenting on the Court's ruling to emphasize that it does not forbid prayer in public schools. Are we then justified, at this time, to read into this decision the shadows of foreboding events which have not come nor are necessarily implied in the present status of things? We would be wise to accept the ruling at its word, and consider only that which has happened, not that which our aroused imaginations tell us may happen.
Fifth, such proposed amendments would change the very nature of the first amendment. In its present form it is essentially negative. It is a limitation of power. These various amendments would be positive, a grant of power to the Federal Government. They would, in effect, confer a religious function on the public schools through the Constitution. This would constitute a shift of power and disturb the present constitutional balance, and would be extremely dangerous. Those who oppose the separation of church and state could well contend that the essential separation of church and state had been destroyed. That is not the intention of any of those offering amendments. But the best of intentions could ultimately lead to disaster.
Sixth, the proposed amendments deny the very nature of prayer itself. Prayer in its essence is personal communion between the infinite Spirit of God and the finite spirits of men. Any officially composed prayer tends to reduce this personal communion to a rote repetition. Jesus said, “But when ye pray, use not vain (empty) repetitions * * *” (Matthew 6: 7). Religion is the highest expression of man's relation to God. And prayer is the highest expression of religion. Rather than the repetition of an official or composed prayer in our public schools, it would be better to have a moment of silent prayer, when each in his own words and in his own way would permit his finite spirit to reach out and up in communion with the infinite Spirit.
For these reasons it is my earnest hope that we shall in no way act to modify the essence of the first amendment. Instead, I invite you to join with me and all other citizens of our beloved Nation in a request that the Supreme Court itself shall so clarify the meaning of its decision that we shall have no reason to question its intentions.
Honored gentlemen, I thank you for your forbearance.
STATEMENT ON THE SUPREME COURT RULING REGARDING “REGENTS' PRAYER" BY
THE EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE OF THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF EVANGELICALS, WHEATON, ILL.
From the multitude of conflicting interpretations which have been expressed on the recent ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court against regents' prayer in the New York State schools, it is evident that the decision has resulted in general confusion. If three eminent constitutional lawyers interviewed by one of the major wire services are totally disagreed on what the Court said, is it any wonder that the mass of people are perplexed ?
For its constituency and for the Nation, the National Association of Evangelicals would like to (1) clarify its understanding of what the Court said, (2) express its concern over some of the ramifications of the decision, and (3) offer some constructive suggestions.
First of all, let us clearly understand the case which confronted the Court. The petitioning parents complained that their rights were violated because the school system which their children attended carried out the recommended practice of reciting a prayer which had been drafted by the New York State Board of Regents, the governing educational authority of that State. In upholding the plaintiffs, the majority of the Court-in a 6 to 1 decision-hinged its opinion on the following statement:
"In this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by any government."
Justice Black, who wrote the majority opinion, carefully avoided striking down the prayer on the simple ground that it is a religious activity within a governmental institution. Instead, the prayer in question was ruled unconstitutional because it was written and sanctioned by an official governmental body. “This is no business of government under our constitutional system,” the opinion declares.
We do not take issue with the point of law on which the majority of the justices ruled. Indeed, if this has served to uphold the constitutional stipulation that church and state must be kept separate, we commend the Court for its sensitivity to the dangers involved in even the most minute intrusion upon religious freedom by an agency of government.
It is clear to us that the Court decided this case within very narrow limits. We would call to the attention of our constituency and others a footnote appearing in the majority opinion which could be one of the most historic footnotes ever attached to a governmental document. It said:
"There is of course nothing in the decision reached here that is inconsistent with the fact that schoolchildren and others are officially encouraged to express love for our country by reciting historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence which contain references to the Deity or by singing officially espoused anthems which include the composer's professions of faith in a Supreme Being, or with the fact that there are many manifestations in our public life of belief in God. Such patriotic or ceremonial occasions bear no true resemblance to the unquestioned religious exercise that the State of New York has sponsored in this instance."
The Court has disallowed prayer in the classroom only in circumstances like those in the New York case where the prayer itself was written by a governmental body. Any broader interpretation by friend or critic does violence to the ruling, which makes it obvious that the Court was unwilling to take this occasion to strike down the entire practice of recitation of prayers in the public schools.
However, the trend toward secularism which is inherent in this decision gravely concerns us. The majority opinion contends that the regents' prayer establishes the religious beliefs of that body, but this innocuous prayer is devoid of any doctrinal content beyond a basic theistic presupposition. What religious beliefs are contained in this prayer that are not already stated in the Declaration of Independence, the pledge to the flag, and the legend on our coins? That this prayer constitutes an "establishment of religion” is certainly arguable. Justice Stewart, in his dissenting opinion, does this very eloquently. “With all respect," he says, “I think the Court has misapplied a great constitutional principle. I cannot see how an 'official religion' is established by letting those who want to say a prayer say it. On the contrary, I think that to deny the wish of these school children to join in reciting this prayer is to deny them the opportunity of sharing in the spiritual heritage of our Nation."
The statement by Justice Douglas in his concurring opinion that “the first amendment leaves the Government in a position not of hostility to religion but of a neutrality” is an interpretation unacceptable to most Americans. The first amendment prohibits the establishment of a church or particular religious group by “Government support or preferential treatment. It does not espouse religious neutrality but on the contrary assumes faith in God, a faith which it guarantees the right of all citizens to express by engaging in whatever religious exercises they choose.
Mr. Douglas also contends that the issue is whether the Government "can constitutionally finance a religious exercise." His negative answer appears to mean that compensating chaplains for praying in the Houses of Congress, for conducting services in our military establishments, etc., is likewise unconstitutional. This seems to place Mr. Douglas in the position of advocating the completely secular state.
One would be hard pressed to demonstrate that the framers of the Constitution so intended. The divorcement of God from human government was completely alien to their theistic concepts. George Washington indicated as much in his inaugural address when he said: “It would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act, my fervent supplications to the Almighty Being who rules over the universe.” To eliminate expressions of religious conviction and commitment. in deference to minority groups of objectors, from our schools and legislative assemblies would represent a repudiation of our religious heritage.
We would offer to all Americans, and especially to our evangelical constituency. the following suggestions to help bring order to the present confused state of affairs :
1. Let us be careful not to read into the decision more than the Supreme Court wrote into it. In so doing, evangelicals might endanger the continuation of religious observances in our public life by giving aid and comfort to the secularistic influences who wish the Court had said more than it did. In its next term the Court will hear cases regarding Bible reading and the recitation of the Lord's Prayer in public schools and its decision on these matters will clarify the issue.
2. Let us be alert to attempts to establish secularism as a negative form of religion on the narrow basis of the Court's ruling. The American Civil Liberties Union has asked its local chapters to challenge such practices as Christmas and Hanukkah observances, Bible reading, recitation of the Lord's Prayer, and baccalaureate services. The Court did not even remotely approach a decision on these practices.
3. Let us encourage school officials in our communities to continue their voluntary nonsectarian religious observances, a privilege which is left open to them by the important footnote in the decision.
4. Let us watch with prayerful interest the decisions which will come from the next term of the Supreme Court regarding Bible reading and the Lord's Prayer in public schools. If these rulings do not satisfactorily clarify the confusion created by the current decision, then we should give our support to remedial legislation which will preserve the rights of the majority to maintain our great and vital school tradition.
5. Let each of us make a personal commitment to the religious principles which are the foundation of our country and let this commitment be translated into practice and conduct. Without this dedication to moral and spiritual values, neither legislation nor court rulings can save America.
STATEMENT OF CLARENCE MITCHELL, DIRECTOR OF THE
WASHINGTON BUREAU, NAACP At its national convention in Atlanta, Ga., July 2–8, 1962, the NAACP unanimously passed a resolution on the controversy which arose following the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Engel v. Vitale. The delegates were fully aware of the fact that this decision stated, “In this country, it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government." The resolution passed by the convention states that, “This decision adheres to the principle of separation of church and state which the NAACP has always supported. It does not prevent the teaching of religion or of the tenets of any religious faith by individuals; governmental participation therein is prohibited.”
The NAACP convention is always heavily attended by outstanding clergymen of many faiths. Many of the lay delegates are church officials in their respective faiths. They do not take the subject of religion lightly. It is the opinion of many who attended the convention that a substantial part of the attack on the U.S. Supreme Court, because of the prayer decision, is in reality a part of the continuing effort to discredit our highest Court because of the 1954 school desegregation decision.
It is impossible to see how the brief and inconclusive hearings held on the various resolutions can provide the basis for any type of constructive approach to congressional action. Indeed, if it is the intention of such sponsors of such resolutions to correct some kind of problem, their energies might well be directed in other channels because this decision does not present a national or even local problem.
As one who attended some of the sessions of the hearings, I would like to state for the record that most of those who seemed eager to attack the Supreme Court because of the decision in Engel v. Vitale apparently had not read the Court's opinion. It was also clear that the line of questioning pursued by Senator Philip A. Hart, of Michigan, developed answers which showed that the objectives of those protesting the decision were by no means well defined. In one instance, a member of the Protestant faith was hard put to give an explanation of how he would react if children were required to recite the Ave Maria.
We strongly urge that the committee abandon any consideration of attempts to change the Constitution or to nullify the Court's decision in this field of American life. We also state unequivocally that the hearings held during the 2d session of the 87th Congress were so restricted and inconclusive that they could not possibly furnish a basis for any intelligent congressional action in the S8th Congress.
TESTIMONY OF Rev. Thomas J. VAN LOON, CHAIRMAN OF THE COMMITTEE ON
RELIGION AND PUBLIC EDUCATION OF THE NATIONAL COUNCIL OF THE CHURCHES OF CHRIST IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
My name is Thomas J. Van Loon. I am an ordained minister of the Methodist Church, employed by the General Board of Education of the Methodist Church in offices at 1001 19th Avenue South, in Nashville, Tenn. My residence is in Nashville. I do not here represent the Methodist Church, but speak for the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., by appointment of Council President J. Irwin Miller. This is in response to an invitation from the Committee on the Judiciary, sent to the council office at 475 Riverside Drive in New York on July 19, 1962, to present testimony on positions of the council relevant to amendments to the Constitution of the United States being proposed in reaction to the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Engel v. Vitale, commonly described as the New York State Regents' Prayer case. First scheduled for hearings the following week, and postponed by the committee, this testimony is now filed for the record.
The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. is a voluntary association of some 31 Protestant and Orthodox communions, with other denominations being related to some parts of the program such as missions or education. The National Council of Churches is governed by a triennial assembly of the elected representatives of the constituent churches. When that assembly is not in session, a delegated general board has responsibility. Only the general assembly and the general board are authorized to speak for the council. Neither the general assembly nor the general board has been in session since the date of the Court decision, so official comment has not been possible. However, during the 10 years of its history, the National Council of Churches has made official pronouncements of principle on matters relevant to consideration of Senate Concurrent Resolution 81, Senate Joint Resolutions 204 to 207, inclusive, and Senate Resolution 356, sent me by your staff. These related statements I report. One should hear them with the understanding that they come from delegated church officials, but by our rules do not bind any constituent denomination or any member of them.
I report for your information also relevant statements from member denominations, as received in our New York office to date.
(1) The National Council of Churches believes in prayer and in worship as important elements in the life of faith.
“Man can know the will of God as it has been revealed-and can also enter into communion with Him. Since God rules in history, and since man is His child created in His likeness, prayer is powerfully relevant. Constant prayer by all who put their trust in the righteousness of God can release the greatest power conceivable in this world. To neglect prayer is to forego the most important source of light, strength, and composure.
“The churches must encourage and help the people to engage in common and individual worship and to participate in the sacraments more frequently, regularly, and earnestly. Worship enables individuals and groups to view the present scene in the light of God's eternal being and purpose. It provides spiritual undergirding, brings to people troubled by fears and doubts a fresh and clear consciousness of God in whom they may find strength and composure." I
(2) The National Council of Churches has expressed its support of public schools, the latest such statement being dated February 22, 1961, which says in part:
“We reaffirm our support of the public school system as an indispensable means of providing educational opportunity for all children; we urge provision of increased resources for the operation and improvement of the public schools
1 "The National Council of Churches Views Its Task in Christian Life and Work." a pronouncement adopted by the General Board of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., May 16, 1951, 9.1-2 and 5.
2 "Public Funds for Public Schools," a pronouncement adopted by the general board Feb. 22, 1961, 13.4-2.