THE LINEUP at the congressional hearings on this year's proposal to get prayer into the public schools was about as expected. The old, main-line religious groups testified against it, and the evangelical groups strongly supported it. That division alone on such a touchy religious and political issue should be sufficient to kill the proposal. But there are other reasons for the House to reject this attempt to circumvent the Supreme Court and its interpretation of the First Amendment.
This proposal, which passed the Senate last year, is one that purports to strip the Supreme Court and other federal courts of jurisdiction over cases involving voluntary prayer in public schools or public buildings. It is, most likely, unconstitutional; that is what the Department of Justice has advised the House. But if it is constitutional, it is a mischievous device that would set a precedent for other efforts to shatter the uniformity of law in the nation.
Under the proposal, each of 51 courts (50 state supreme courts and the District of Columbia's court of appeals) would have the final say on how the First Amendment applies to prayer in the schools. The same words that, for almost 200 years, have had the same meaning for all Americans would inevitably end up meaning different things in different states. A law upheld in, say, Arkansas might be struck down in Oregon -- not under the differing provisions of the two state constitutions but under the same provision of the federal Constitution.
That is bad enough, but there is more. If Congress has power, as this proposal asserts it does, to close the federal courts to claims by individuals that their First Amendment rights are being violated, it has power to close those courts to other, similar claims. What would have happened, for instance, if Congress had deprived the federal courts of power to hear school desegregation cases after the 1954 decision? What if the "separate but equal" doctrine had been reinstated by some state supreme courts?
This proposal, in other words, could destroy the idea of federal supremacy that has held the Union together and survived a civil war. It is strange that the Senate approved and 176 members of the House have signed up in support of something so radical in nature.
That, we suppose, is a testimonial to the fervor with which the evangelical groups have pushed this idea as a legitimate way to get school students to pray. That fervor would be better directed at getting approval of a constitutional amendment that, although a bad idea, would at least not steer the country in the direction of becoming a confederation instead of a federal union.