The Senate aimed a severe blow yesterday at the Supreme Court and at President Carter's proposed Department of Education by adding a school-prayer amendment to the bill creating the new department.
By a 47-to 37 vote, the Senate approved a amendment by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) designed to strip the federal courts and the U. S. Supreme Court of all jurisdiction over state laws permitting "voluntary prayers in the pulbic schools" and other public buildings. The Supreme Court has held that public school prayers violate constitutional requirements for separation of church and state.
The Helms amendment would, in effect, block the Supreme Court from barring future state school prayer laws.
If the highly controversial school-prayer language remains in the bill, Sen. Spark M. Matsunaga (D.-Hawaii) said after the vote, "it may jeopardize the bill" either in the Senate or in the House, where it is still in committee.
"The bill itself may die," said Matsunaga.
However, the Senate will take another crack at the Helms amendment Monday as a result of a deft leadership floor maneuver, and floor manager Abraham A. Ribicoff (D-Conn.) said, "I hope enough people will realize that they are really voting on a constitutional issue stripping the Supreme Court of jurisdiction."
Ribicoff said "some strong supporters of the [Department of Education] proposal are afraid of the prayer issue and the abortion issue" and had simply used the Helms amendment as a vehicle to express displeasure with the court.
Regardless of the outcome of next Monday's vote, Ribicoff said he would go forward with the bill. Matsunaga said the House might then strip off the amendment in conference.
A White House spokesman said, "We will have great confidence that the bill will pass the Senate without this amendment."
The maneuver that gives Ribicoff and the White House a chance to undo yesterday's vote was engineered by Ribicoff and Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). After Helms won, 47 to 37, Ribicoff moved for reconsideration and Byrd immediately called upon the Senate to adjourn. On a 55-to-27 vote, it did. This put off the reconsideration vote until Monday, giving bill backers time to try to reverse some votes and strip off the amendment.
Addition of the prayer amendment would substantially add to the troubles of the proposal to create a Cabinet-level Department of Education with about 15,000 employes and a $14.3 billion annual budget.
Some critics, like the AFL-CIO, the Association of American Colleges and conservatives like Rep. John Erlenborn (R-Ill.), charge the new department would disrupt the existing labor-welfare-education-civil rights alliance or give the federal government too dominant a position over educational policymaking traditionally reserved for states, localities and private universities. They are making an all-out attack on the bill in the House, although Senate passage by a comfortable margin had been expected.
Bill backers say it would give more clout to education in the Cabinet, increasing efficiency in federal programs. The Urban League, the United Auto Workers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes are backing the bill, discounting charges the liberal alliance would be disrupted. The National Education Association and many other education groups also support it.
In yesterday's vote, Maryland's senators voted against Helms, Virginia's with him.