School Prayer — the Battle Continues

I was saddened by the Clinton administration’s destruction of one of my hardest earned Senate accomplishments, the Adolescent Family Life Program (AFL), which provides an alternative to the heavily-funded Planned Parenthood approach to sex education (Title X). The AFL calls for parental and clergy participation (at the child’s request) in the counseling, which emphasizes abstinence and adoption in the treatment and prevention instead of Title X’s advocacy of sexual activity with contraceptives and abortion as birth control. To obtain the unanimous approval of the Labor and Human Resources Committee in the Senate, including the very liberal senators like Kennedy and Metzenbaum, I showed them Title X’s main sex education movie About Sex which was shocking to them.

However, I was heartened by a recent achievement of an old friend of mine in Congress. Congressman Sam Johnson (R-Texas), who served with me as a POW in Hanoi, introduced a significant amendment which passed 345-65 on March 21, 1994. The amendment offers protection to school children who choose to exercise their First Amendment rights in school by withholding federal funds from schools which prohibit Constitutionally-protected, voluntary prayer.

The language which defines the specific school action denying federal funds is as follows: “Notwithstanding any privilege of law . . . any state or local educational agency which has a policy of denying, or which effectively prevents participation in constitutionally protected prayer in public schools by individuals on a voluntary basis.”

That wording is an attempt to counter efforts at subterfuge, a mighty tool of many politicians in Washington. In the war for America’s soul, the enemy’s biggest subterfuge is to pretend that no such war is going on, that it is a quixotic construction of the “Religious Right.”

If the enemy can continue to dull public awareness with that campaign of smoke and mirrors, they will win the war. In place of Congressman Johnson’s sincere amendment, there were offered in the Senate the Levin amendment, and in the House the Williams amendment. Both are deceptively worded to mask their real purpose — to gut the prayer effort and to weaken current law. On February 3, Senator Jesse Helms bulldogged an amendment similar to Johnson’s through the Senate where the Levin amendment was tried. For many years, Jesse Helms and Henry Hyde have been standout leaders in this crucial war. I am proud to be a friend of both. Sam, Jesse and I agree that the school prayer issue is a key battle therein.

My own part in the school prayer battle is largely represented by my introduction of the legislation which was passed as the Equal Access Act, which generally established that religious meetings such as prayer groups should be permissible in public schools on an equal basis with meetings of the Key Club, Gay Rights groups, the Stamp Club, etc.

The bill’s passage did improve prayer opportunities in schools but the highly organized opposition soon found a way to weaken its effects. The ACLU, with overwhelming financial backing, began a campaign of bringing suit against schools on a selective basis. The principal or superintendent of each school found his financial resources inadequate and was forced to surrender to the ACLU early. Other principals and superintendents watching this happen simply became intimidated and took steps to avoid the suits altogether. School prayer failed to benefit as intended by the Act. The media barely reported the passage of the Equal Access Act and totally hushed the news of its abortion.

But more and more people, including the men and women in Congress, are beginning to see through the media campaign to establish the illusion that there is no war, just right-wing “fanatics” trying to impose their archaic values on others. Many in the Senate, the House, and even in the media, who believed that illusion are waking up. Another good sign is the superb caliber of Catholic leadership emerging on our side: Pope John Paul II, John Cardinal O’Connor, Mother Angelica, William Bennett, and Michael Novak are five good examples. One of their greatest virtues is to act on the belief that good non-Catholic allies should be considered valued partners. The Catholic Campaign for America and other relevant lay movements are joining the fray effectively and deserve support. But Catholics alone will not win the war.

Senator Helm’s remarks on school prayer and children’s values can be found in the Congressional Record of February 3, 1994. All Americans, especially the three branches of government, should read what Sen. Helms had to say. I also strongly urge that they watch a video tape entitled “America’s Godly Heritage,” by David Barton. It can be obtained from Wall Builders, P.O. Box 397, Aledo, Texas 76008, (817) 441-6044.

Certainly, we are truly in the crisis which this magazine addresses. Any choice between good and evil, personal or national, is always critical; but in terms of continuing the original, traditional spirit in which this country was so magnificently founded, and by which we survive as well as prosper, I believe we face a crisis today that has strong similarities to the Civil War, only today’s crisis is worse. This is how Lincoln defined the cause at that time:

We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us—and we have vainly imagined in the deceitfulness of our hearts that all those blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. . . . Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.

The comment is still relevant today. However, in Lincoln’s day the primary difficulty was with one principle of our founding doctrine: all men are created equal, bringing into debate the issue of states rights. Today, we have an ongoing effort to cast out the underlying thesis of our Founding Fathers: a revolutionary system of government, affording an unprecedented degree of civil liberty under an unprecedentedly weak and limited government based entirely on the assumption or hope that the people would tend sufficiently to govern themselves by worshipping God and following His laws. That governmental concept, though not yet abandoned by the majority of our people, is being abandoned by the majority in Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Executive branch. The liberal news media and the entertainment industry support the government’s new leadership.

Of our nation’s two political parties, the Democratic Party, excepting a few good members like Governor Robert Casey of Pennsylvania and Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, has generally thrown its weight the wrong way for years. Rep. DeLay joined Sam Johnson under the leadership of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) in a desperate fight to save AFL, which is the last vestige of decency and social soundness left in the government’s attempt to influence teen sexual behavior. The Republican Party has a much better record, but is now seriously torn, with some members who want to ignore or play down the actual issue. I pray that the attitudes of our present national leadership and the once great Democratic Party will change; and that the Republican Party will seize the opportunity to identify the real issue and take the right stand.

It has been wisely said, “Government truly under God cannot turn tyrannical, for honorable members will praise God instead of play God.”


Jeremiah Andrew Denton Jr. (born 1924) is a retired United States Navy Rear Admiral and a former United States Senator from the state of Alabama. He spent almost eight years as a Prisoner of War (POW) in North Vietnam and later wrote a book which became a film about those experiences.

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