Alabama Gov. Fob James attempted to ask the Supreme Court yesterday to strip itself of authority over religion and give states the right to allow voluntary school prayers like the one written by his son.
He urged Alabamians to defy court rulings against prayer in the schools, daring federal officials to enforce decisions he predicted would soon be overturned.
James, 48, tried to file a petition that would return to the states all say over religion and a host of other social issues, noting the high court is "very, very sensitive" to changes in the political times. But the court clerk refused to let him file it because no lower federal courts have made final rulings on the case.
It was clearly a frustrating morning for James, a lifetime Republican who turned Democrat in 1978 to become governor. A football hero without political experience, he became a millionaire making plastic barbells and stirred up so many controversies as governor that he heeded the polls and decided not to run for reelection. The flap over the state's prayer law demonstrates his headlong style.
The law, which says a teacher "may pray, may lead willing students in prayer, or may lead the willing students in the following prayer," was pushed through a special session of the state legislature in July. The suggested prayer was written by Fob James III, 25, a Mobile attorney.
"Almighty God, You alone are our God," reads the second paragraph of the three-paragraph law. "We acknowledge You as the Creator and Supreme Judge of the world. May Your justice, Your truth, and Your peace abound this day in the hearts of our countrymen, in the counsels of our government, in the sanctity of our homes and in the classrooms of our schools, in the name of the Lord. Amen."
At a news conference, James minimized his spat with the court clerk over filing procedures. He said his attorney "just has a little form to fill out." But in fact, James has to convince the high court to overlook its entire procedural history in order even to consider a petition that would then ask it to overturn most of its major social verdicts of the last 20 years.
The younger James, who has handled the case for the state, said a favorable ruling would return all authority over religion, including school prayer, to the states. But that would just be the beginning. "By clear implication these are all states' issues" as well, he said: pornography, abortion, prisons, mental health, freedom of speech and the press, capital punishment and search-and-seizure rules.
An Alabama federal judge issued a temporary restraining order Aug. 9 against the state prayer law, in spite of James' contention that only God has jurisdiction over school prayer. "The Lord is not a defendant," said U.S. District Court Judge Brevard Hand. "The state is."
James was not convinced. "I am today encouraging all Alabama school officials, as well as the people of Alabama," he said, "to stand on their constitutional rights, to ignore this federal court injunction and to proceed with prayer in the classrooms, with blessings at mealtime and with any other heart-felt prayer which the citizens of Alabama may wish to say."
He added that he will personally ignore the order and promised to "help in every way we possibly can" any citizen who is prosecuted for praying. "I dare them to do that. Fine me!" he said.
The 1962 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed school prayer, he said, was "a dangerous usurpation of power" by the high court, and he said his petition offers the court the chance to relent.
James echoed Finley Peter Dunne's "Mr. Dooley," who said in 1900 that "th' Supreme Coort follows th' illiction returns."
"I think the court is very, very sensitive, unfortunately, sometimes too often, to the politics of the day. I think they'll redress this," James said.
James bristled when asked at the news conference how his stance differed from that of former Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, who stood in a schoolhouse door in 1963 to defy federal enforcement of Supreme Court rulings ordering school integration.
"There is not one scintilla, one iota of similarity between myself -- philosophicaly, politically and operationally -- and my predecessor," he said.
James said his petition involves "a serious jurisdictional question" while the integration issue was a different question of giving blacks due process under the law.
James also took on President Reagan's proposed amendment to restore school prayer. He said it gives him "great concern" because it "would give the federal government, for the first time, constitutional power over school prayer in the states, thereby setting a dangerous precedent."
James returned to the Supreme Court late yesterday to talk again with the court clerk, but did not file anything. "He said he may be back tomorrow," said a court spokesman.