Congress was told yesterday that crime, drug abuse, racial conflict, sexual promiscuity and the Vietnam war all intensified as a result of a 1963 Supreme Court limitation on prayer in public schools.
And an acceleration of these plagues is certain to occur unless Congress sends out the word that prayer must be allowed in the classroom, William R. Bright of the Campus Crusade for Christ warned.
Members of a House Judiciary subcommittee listened with somber attention as Bright and other witnesses recited their litany of doom, but showed no signs of quick conversion. Member's questioning of witnesses from the evangelical movement suggested no rush to adopt pending legislation designed to stimulate prayer in public schools and buildings.
Most of them indicated more concern about dangers to the Bill of Right if Congress begins to attempt to rewrite the Constitution through statute, such as the pending measure. Known as the Helms amendment, after Sen. Jesse A. Helms (R-N.C.), the legislation would abolish federal court jurisdiction over cases involving school prayer.
Helms and his chief House ally, Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-III), make no secret of their aim: to skirt the 1963 Supreme Court ban on state-prescribed prayers and permit school districts to move as they see fit.
The Helms amendment passed the Senate last year as part of another bill, and now, under pressure from Crane and the evangelicals, it is undergoing hearings in the House subcommittee chaired by Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D-Wis.).
Kastenmeier said yesterday that, given the intensity of the debate over school prayer and its constitutional implications, he will hold two more days of hearings in late August.
That decision seems almost certain to mean that Congress will not be able to complete action on the Helms amendment before the scheduled October adjournment, a move that would effectively sidestep up-or-down votes on the volatile prayer issue.
Crane, also a witness, alluded to the time problem and called the hearings "a thinly veiled attempt to let the proponents . . . blow off steam." He urged members to sign his discharge petition, which would send the measure to the House floor for immediate consideration.
The seriousness of the issue was underscored again yesterday as Bright and fellow witnesses, saying they represent millions of Christians in the burgeoning evangelical movement, stressed the social depravity they feel resulted from the 1963 court ruling.
Without the Helms legislation, they contended, things can only worsen in the United States.
They acknowledged that the court did not ban voluntary prayer in schools, but they argued that the ruling was as good as a ban because of its "chilling effect" on educators and school boards.
"The Surpreme Court decision puts us in a straitjacket," Bright said. "Our real problem is the humans who deny God altogether. They're the ones who control our educational system. What is happening is not far removed from what is happening in the Soviet Union, preparing our students for no God."
James Robison, a Southern Baptist evangelist from Texas, and others insisted that proponents of the Helms amendment want only voluntary prayers in the schools and an end to intimidation of educators.
"We do not imply that prayer in school will solve all of our ills," he said. "But we have intimidated every person who wants to pray. If we do not rectify the problem, this nation faces the judgment of Almighty God."
Similar warnings of the urgency for restoring prayer to classrooms were issued by Robert P. Dugan Jr. of the National Association of Evangelicals, and by representatives of the Moral Majority, the movement founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the television evangelist from Lynchburg, Va.
Congress has no choice, Bright said. "Your decision could well accelerate the disintegration and destruction of America . . . or could help to restore our beloved America."