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Sen. Byrd introduces amendment allowing school prayer

By The Associated Press

Editor's note: Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W. Va., introduced in the House on May 4 an amendment identical to Byrd's, the Associated Press reported.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd introduced a proposed constitutional amendment on April 27 to allow — but not require — prayer in public schools and extracurricular events.

Byrd said the First Amendment was never intended to bar voluntary expressions of religion. The relevant part of the amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

"In my opinion, too many have not given equal weight to both of these clauses. Instead, they have focused only on the first clause, which prohibits the establishment of religion, at the expense of the second clause, which protects the right of Americans to worship as they please," Byrd said in a speech to the Senate.

"It seems to me that any prohibition of voluntary prayer in school violates the right of our school children to practice freely their religion. And that's just not right," Byrd said.

Byrd, D-W.Va., offered similar proposals in 1962, 1973, 1979, 1982, 1993, 1995 and 1997.

The latest amendment would have to be approved by Congress and the legislatures of three-fourths of the 50 states within seven years of the congressional vote.

Byrd said the men who wrote the Constitution believed in a Supreme Being and were proud of their faith.

"I believe that, in ruling after ruling, U.S. courts led by the Supreme Court have been moving closer and closer to prohibiting the free exercise of religion in America. It chills my soul," Byrd said.

Andrew Schneider, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, said the amendment is not necessary because individual students already can pray.

"When the rights of individuals to express their beliefs has been abridged by the government, we have come to their defense in many cases," Schneider said.

Schneider noted that Byrd previously has said that the Constitution should not be tampered with unnecessarily, and the ACLU agrees.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in separate cases that state-imposed school prayer and moments of silence in schools are unconstitutional. The Court has also said that prayers at public school graduation ceremonies are unconstitutional, as are student-led prayers over public address systems at public school football games.

Byrd's proposed amendment reads, "Nothing in this Constitution, including any amendment to this Constitution, shall be construed to prohibit voluntary prayer or require prayer in a public school, or to prohibit voluntary prayer or require prayer at a public school extracurricular activity."

Byrd said the amendment would not permit a school to advocate a particular religious message.

Byrd talked about the recent death of his wife, Erma, and the role of prayer in their life together. But Byrd told the Associated Press that the timing of his reintroduction of the proposed amendment had nothing to do with his wife's death.

"The right time is now," Byrd said. "If not now, when? It's an important step to getting the country on the right track. We need to get back on our knees in this country, get back to the things our forefathers believed in."

Byrd, 88, is seeking a record ninth term in this year's elections.

Byrd told the Senate the importance of prayer was recognized by nearly every denomination. Those who think it is offensive "need only close their ears," he said.


Education Department releases new school-prayer guidelines

For first time, officials tie federal funding to compliance with policy; critic calls rules a partisan push for more school prayer. 02.10.03

Put God back in schools? He never left
By Charles C. Haynes Students already have right to religious expression; re-imposing state-sponsored prayers won't save America. 11.11.01

School prayer is already protected — no amendment needed
By Charles C. Haynes Grassroots campaign is under way to persuade your local government to endorse a confusing and misleading 'school prayer' amendment. 04.28.02

Graduation prayer a tricky issue, but consider this approach
By Charles C. Haynes Best place for prayers, sermons on graduation weekend is at privately sponsored, voluntarily attended baccalaureate service held after school hours. 05.25.03

Supreme Court’s 1963 school-prayer decision didn’t ban school prayer
By Charles C. Haynes Schempp case, far from 'kicking God out of school,' said kids can pray but not be led or forced in prayer by public schools. 06.08.03

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