An all-out effort to put the politically sensitive school prayer issue onto the front burner of Congress has been launched by a coalition of religious groups, Capitol Hill conservatives and students -- led by the Moral Majority and encouraged by the U.S. Department of Education.
Similar school prayer campaigns have been defeated in the past, usually buried in the House Judiciary Committee. But this time the effort has taken several unusual twists.
First, the campaign is borrowing the rhetoric of the civil rights movement, as proponents have tried to shift the terms of the debate to make the right to pray an issue of civil rights. Also, the school prayer movement has at its front ranks real students, claiming to be the victims of religious discrimination, as well as Gary Bauer, the second-highest ranking official in the Education Department.
So it was significant last Tuesday when a student group ended an all-night vigil for school prayer at the Capitol and Bauer, the newly confirmed undersecretary of education, evoked the name of Rosa Parks, the Montgomery, Ala., black woman whose refusal to move to the back of the bus ignited civil rights protests in the South.
"Rosa Parks got on a bus and . . . was told by the bus driver to go to the back of the bus," Bauer said. Similarly, he added, today's students have been told "to go to the back of the bus."
Just as Parks' plight was more than a "transportation issue," Bauer said, the school prayer issue "transcends being just an education issue: It's a civil rights issue."
Bauer's position favoring school prayer is not a new one, and he has long been an ally of the New Right and the Moral Majority within the Education Department. But there has been a perception that the department, while officially in favor of school prayer, had not made it a top legislative priority.
Education Secretary William Bennett has promised to be more forceful than his predecessor in pushing some of the New Right's agenda on education, including school prayer, tuition tax credits and vouchers for parents who put their children in private or religious schools.
In his most strongly worded statement on the subject, last month Bennett accused the Supreme Court of displaying "a fastidious disdain for religion" after a series of rulings seen as setbacks to the administration on a variety of church-state issues.
The students who held the prayer vigil have formed a new group called "Let Us Pray" that will continue to lobby members of Congress.
The ultimate goal of the recent lobbying is passage of a constitutional amendment, sponsored by Rep. Thomas Kindness (R-Ohio) and backed by President Reagan, to allow for a moment of silent prayer in schools. The Supreme Court, ruling in June in an Alabama case, said it was unconstitutional for that state to prescribe a moment of silence that was specifically designated "for meditation or voluntary prayer."
A more immediate goal of the campaign is a separate bill sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), which would give state and local governments the power to permit voluntary school prayer, Bible meetings and religious club gatherings in public school buildings. That bill is scheduled to be voted on in September.
Kindress' bill is now bottled up in the Judiciary Committee, where it is given practically no chance of ever seeing the light of day. Kindress and others are collecting signatures on a discharge petition that would pry the bill out for a vote. So far, they have collected fewer than a dozen of the 218 signatures needed.