Every couple of years, ever since the Supreme Court in 1962 outlawed public school-sponsored religious exercises, a movement comes along that is determined to "put prayer back in the schools," as proponents like to describe it.
This election year, a coalition that includes TV evangelists, veterans' groups, the Junior Chamber of Commerce, the Republican Study Committee and a variety of right-wing religious lobbies has mounted one of its strongest such efforts.
The Senate has passed legislation offered by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) that would remove from the Supreme Court its jurisdiction over state laws relating to "voluntary prayers in public schools or in public buildings."
Now the coalition is hard to work trying to force the same measure out of the House Judiciary Committee, despite the fact that the committee chairman, Peter Rodino (D-N.J.), has shown no interest in considering it.
The school prayer controversy is probably the hottest political issue this side of abortion. As one congressional aide said, "Nobody wants to vote against God."
The Rev. Charles Bergstrom, governmental affairs director of the Lutheran Council in the USA, said he received five telephone calls in one day from congressmen seeking help in dealing with the issue.
"They want to oppose it [school prayer] but they need help to do it in a way that doesn't turn off more voters than they have to," Bergstrom said. The Lutheran Council, like most mainline Protestant churches, fully supports the Supreme Court decisions on school prayer.
The issue has sharply divided the religious community. Conservative evangelicals are battling to get school kids praying again, while Jewish and mainline Protestant denominations support the ban. Catholics have taken no position on the current legislation.
Some right-wing Protestant groups have seized upon the issue as a basis around which to build political muscle.
On Capitol Hill, a discharge petition that Rep. Philip Crane (R-Ill.) filed last year to get the legislaiton out of committee has gained 150 signatures of the 218 needed. Nearly half the signatures were gathered last month as the coalition of 28 groups stepped up the pressure.
At a combined rally-press conference launching "Prayer in School Week" last month, Crane credited the Washington for Jesus rally here in April for helping to persuade members to sign the discharge petition.
Although Washington for Jesus was ostensibly nonpolitical, restoring prayer to public schools was one of its goals. The day before the rally on the Mall, delegations from each congressional district called on each member of Congress with a prayer and, in some cases, at least, an implicit political message.
"They [the WFJ representatives] didn't being up any particular legislation," when they came to call last April 28, said Ralph Collins, administrative aide to Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.).
"They gave us a computerized printout of their members who live in the congressman's district and they said they'd be watching the local papers for stories about the congressman, that he would vote correctly, but they didn't spell it out," Collins said.
Chuck Cade, of Moral Majority, one of most active groups within the pro-prayer coalition, said his organization declined to participate in Washington for Jesus because "it lacked follow-through. You get people excited and you give them no outlet for that excitement and the result is cynicism," he said.
Moral Majority was formed less than a year ago as the political outlet for evangelist Jerry Falwell. It sees the prayer-in-schools issue as an opportunity to get the organization off the ground.
"We're really lucky," he said, pointing out that Helms' proposal to remove state laws on school prayers from Supreme Court jurisdiction involves "not only school prayers but states' rights and also the issue of big government" -- all compelling emotional issues among the conservative evangelicals who are his chief constituents.
Moral Majority has chapters in 46 states and a newsletter that reaches 248,000 persons, among them 70,000 conservative pastors, he said.
Beginning in April, he said, it "began a really concentrated effort of getting our people involved . . . We're playing the hard ball of publicizing the list of members of Congress who have signed the discharge petition, those that won't sign it, and those that are undecided."
The people at the grass roots, particularly the pastors, are encouraged to concentrate on the "undecided category," he said. "As a result, we've generated a tremendous amount of correspondence."
Even some members who are unequivocally opposed to putting prayers back in the classrooms are feeling the pressure. "We're getting a lot of letters," said Karen Steele, a staff member of Rep. Paul Simon (D-Ill.).
Steele said that for the "past couple weeks" Simon's office has received a substantial number of letters obviously generated by an individual or organization, "all written on the same day with the same pen," as well as petitions.
"We answer the people who sign petitions, explaining why the congressman doesn't support the school prayers, and very often people write back saying 'I don't support this thing and I didn't sign any petition; I don't know where you got my name.'"
Cade said that Moral Majority has spent "a lot of money" on the school prayer issue but declined to cite a figure. "I wish we could have spent twice as much," he said.
But another of the 18 groups within the pro-prayer coalition, the Leadership Foundation, has a nationwide campaign to raise a war chest of $1.5 million for the school prayer issue.
The crusade to return corporate prayer to the classroom has caught its opponents among the mainline churches offguard. Last month, they were frantically trying to organize their own coalition and energize their members.
"We're just starting to move on it," said John Baker of the Baptist Joint committee on Public Affairs, "and I hope we have time."
Baker said he was told by one comgressman that "he's going to have to vote against us on this (the discharge petition) because he's got a Christian Voice candidate running against him in the primary." The Christian Voice is a right wing lobby with views similar to Moral Majority.
"But he said he hopes we'll get hot and get the churches in action so that he'll have some support in his district to vote against the bill itself," Baker said.
One of the arguments of the Supreme court against school prayer in its 1962 decision was that requiring a child to take part in a school-sponsored religious exercise violated the Constitutional guarantees of seperation of church and state.
Proponents of the Helms bill say it would provide for "voluntary" prayer.
"That's a crock," said Baker. "Their definition of voluntary is the same thing the courts threw out. The only thing that's voluntary is that you may leave the room if you object to the prayer."
President Carter cited the same objection recently when he met with a group of conservative pastors who urged him to support prayers in classrooms. His continued opposition is in keeping with his Southern Baptist heritage, since Baptists have been among the strictest supporters of separation of church and state.
Proponents of school prayer seem to concentrate their arguments on two themes: (1) faith in God was built into this country by the founding fathers, and (2) the contention that virtually evrything bad that has happened to this country started after the Supreme Court's 1962 decision.
"Almost immediately after (the Supreme Court decision) President Kennedy was assassinated, we had the student revolution, the assassination of Senator Kennedy," Bill Bright, one of the leaders of Washington for Jesus and head of Campus Crusade for Christ, has said. His litany of ills includes increased rates of crime, divorce, alcoholism, teen-age pregnancy, venereal disease and drug addiction, among others.
Opponents of prayer in schools reject the link between the prayer ban and those societal ills as too simplistic, and argue that in the complex society that America has become, the Supreme Court's reading of the Constitution on this issue is the only correct one.
Besides, many religious leaders contend, the required prayer, mumbled on command without conviction and inner motivation, is a form of blasphemy; the place for religious instruction and prayer is the home and the church or synagogue.
But those who favor school prayers point out that many children do not attend church or synagogue and their only exposure to religious expression would come by praying in school.
"We believe that corporately, the nation ought to be willing to pray," Cade said.