LIBERTY, Ky. — In the contest for conservative voters, Gov. Ernie Fletcher and his chief opponent in the GOP primary election are in a bitter argument over who is the biggest supporter of prayer in public schools.
Fletcher aired a television ad last week that said Republican challenger Anne Northup, a former congresswoman from Louisville, had voted against school prayer.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," Northup said in recorded telephone calls to Republicans across the state. "I have voted time after time in support of prayer in our schools, and as governor I look forward to protecting this right. As a matter of fact, I have consistently argued that taking God out of our schools has undermined our children's faith."
Northup, who served in Congress for 10 years before losing the seat to a Democrat last year, voted against a 1998 resolution that called for a constitutional amendment that would have allowed voluntary school prayer.
At a campaign stop in Liberty yesterday, Northup said she voted against the resolution because it would have allowed teachers to lead the prayers, which meant adults of one religion could have been in a position to lead children of another religion in prayer.
"Christian families do not want teacher-led prayer in their classrooms," Northup said.
Under the law, school officials are prohibited by the establishment clause of the First Amendment from promoting religion. Leading students in prayer is an example of promoting religion, even if school officials attempt to make the prayers "voluntary" or "nonsectarian."
The 1962 Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale disallowed a New York policy requiring each school day to begin with a prayer drafted by the state Board of Regents. Justice Hugo Black wrote that "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 high court also examined school prayer in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985). This controversy arose over a change to Alabama’s moment-of-silence law to include a requirement that the moment of silence be for the purpose of “meditation or voluntary prayer.” The Court found such a change was the result of a desire to return to government promotion of prayer in the schools, and struck the statute down. The justices said a neutral moment of silence is appropriate, but must have a secular purpose.
However, no Supreme Court ruling has banned prayer or the Bible from public schools. Students are allowed to pray alone or in groups, as long as there is no school sponsorship of prayer and no disruption of the school day.
Northup said she had voted 14 other times in favor of school prayer. Fletcher, on a campaign swing through western Kentucky yesterday, stayed clear of the issue in stump speeches. His campaign manager, however, did not.
"It's an issue that's important to Republican voters, and it's an issue that illustrates the difference between the type of leader that Governor Fletcher is and that Anne Northup would be," campaign manager Marty Ryall. "It's a clear contrast."
One of the co-sponsors of the resolution, former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, took Fletcher's side in the squabble.
"This amendment, if adopted, would have allowed voluntary school prayer," Barr said in a recorded statement the Fletcher campaign used in phone calls to Republican voters over the weekend. "Unfortunately, Anne Northup was the only Republican congressional member from Kentucky who voted against the school prayer amendment."
Barr, who served eight years as a Republican congressman before losing his seat in 2002, weighed in on the issue at the request of the Fletcher campaign.
"Governor Fletcher supports the freedom to pray in school, and he's telling you the truth about Anne Northup's vote against it," Barr said. "I know. I was there. And it was my bill."
Northup noted that Barr has since joined the Libertarian Party and was "promoting legalizing drugs." As a Washington D.C. lobbyist, Barr has represented the Marijuana Policy Project, which supports easing restrictions on marijuana.
A third GOP candidate, Paducah businessman Billy Harper, has stayed clear of the debate. "Billy supports prayer in school," his spokesman, Sam Edelen, said. "He does not support the negativity and mean-spiritedness his opponents are using in an effort to gain political advantage."