The Urgency of Atheist Activity Now by Jon G. Murray On May 6, 1982, President Reagan held
The Urgency of Atheist Activity Now
by Jon G. Murray
On May 6, 1982, President Reagan held a combination press conference and
prayer meeting in the Rose Garden outside the White House with about 120
religious and conservative political leaders in attendance, among them
Jerry Falwell. At that conference he announced his backing of a constitutional
amendment to put "voluntary" prayer back in the public schools.
In his speech Reagan said, among other things, "I have never believed that
that oft-quoted amendment [the First Amendment to the Constitution] was
supposed to protect us *from* religion, it was to protect religion from
government tyrrany." This line is synonymous with the thinking of many
"liberal" separation-of-state-and-church groups today. American Atheists is
the only group willing to stand for freedom *from* religion as a necessary
collary to freedom *of* religion. There is not much that we can do now,
however, about an administrative interpretation of the First Amendment as
running only in one direction. That leaning has been standard White House
procedure at least since Eisenhower. We were not able to correct this
interpretation then, so we have to live with it now.
That fact is important but not so important as the real motive behind
Reagan's endorsement. Falwell summed it up to the press in the Rose Garden
when he said, "Obviously, the purpose of the constitutional amendment is to
circumvent the Supreme Court and to put it [the issue of prayer in public
schools] out of their reach." This proposed amendment is nothing but a wolf
in sheep's clothing.
For some years now, in both the Carter and Reagan administrations, more
in the latter, various members of Congress have been pushing the notion of
congressional curbing of Supreme Court jurisdiction in some key areas. Those
areas have been selected far more for their emotional appeal to the voters at
large than for their face value. They are: busing (to achieve racial balance
in the schools), abortion/right-to-life, ERA, and aid to parochial schools.
In each of these areas attempts have been made in either the House or the
Senate to pass legislation to limit in some way the jurisdiction of the
Supreme Court or federal courts in general, concerning review, especially
appellate review, of these matters. In effect, some congressmen have been
asking their colleagues to vote for a breach in the tripartite form of checks-
and-balances government set up by our Constitution.
Our founding fathers established a judicial branch of government to have
review powers over the legislative branch (the Congress) and the executive
branch principally as a safeguard for minorities. They knew, as history has
demonstrated to us, that a minority group, such as Atheists, by simply being
small in number, cannot influence Congress or the executive branch and are
therefore left to seek redress for any grievance or civil rights abridgment
through the courts. Therein the group has a forum, at least by original
design, that does not depend upon its numbers or political muscle to get a
fair hearing. If that forum is closed down or restricted in certain areas,
to what should minorities turn? Violence? A good modern example is our own
Black community prior to the passage of some civil rights acts.
If these few conservative congressmen succeed, will we then have, in
effect, a two-part form of government? The answer is a shocking yes. A
government of legislative and executive fiat with a circumvented judiciary
will mean simply majority, or should I say "moral majority" rule. In 1943,
after a series of federal cases involving schools, the Supreme Court said:
The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain
subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place
them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to
establish them as legal principles *to be applied by the courts*.
One's right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a
free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental
rights *may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome
of no elections* (West Virginia State Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette,
319 U.S. 624 ).
We need to maintain a High Court that retains this position at all costs.
If we lose our forum of dissent, we lose our civil rights as well.
The issues around which to rally the muzzling of the courts have not been
chosen lightly. This goes double for the prayer issue. Can you name a
representative in your state legislature who would dare go on record as voting
against "voluntary prayer" in public schools? I can't think of one in Texas,
my home state. That particular part of his voting record would be used by
his opponent in the next election and would cost him his seat, in almost any
district, especially some of the rural ones. Federal legislators are, on the
other hand, a little less vulnerable to demagogic pressure than someone who
is elected by a small district instead of an entire state. If a prayer
amendment is to be stopped, it must be stopped in the federal Congress. An
amendment to the Constitution requires two-thirds of both houses of Congress
plus the ratification of the legislatures of thirty-eight states. If the
federal Congress lets a prayer amendment loose on the states, it will be
ratified faster than any amendment in the history of this country. It will
not be defeated as was ERA. Why do I say this? Why am I so pessimistic?
One example will suffice. The Huntsville Times recently published an article
done by the Washington Post News Service on Louisiana parish schools that
ignore the 1963 decision on religious ceremonies in public schools. In that
article, students, teachers, and administrators were asked their opinion,
and here is what some of them said:
1. Mother of a student: As for the Supreme Court, "To heck with them.
I'm not going to let anyone tell me when my child can pray. If we're
breaking the law, so be it."
2. A school board member: "Just because the Supreme Court says it,
doesn't mean it's the law. The people are the law of the land...."
3. A school board president: "We're closer than Washington to what the
people in this community want. The courts have gone too far. They've
reached the point where they're trying to regulate everything about
4. Another school board member: "I'd rather be right with God than
the Supreme Court."
5. An eleven-year-old female student: "I like it [prayer]; it helps
us on our tests."
6. A seventeen-year-old male senior: "It [morning prayer] gives you a
chance to get your thoughts together. You don't have to pray. If
you're an Atheist, you can sit and think."
7. A fifth grade teacher: "We are a nation governed by laws and rules.
If you break them, you pay the penalty. The Supreme Court says I'm
breaking the rules, but I'm working for the good of the *majority*.
I'm willing to pay the penalty. We're not violating anybody's right
here. What are we going to do next? Take God's name off our coins?"
In these answers are embodied all of the standard misconceptions of the
June 1963 decision of the Supreme court in Murray vs. Curlett. The Court
ruling did not outlaw voluntary *private* prayer by individuals. Nor could
it have under our Constitution. The Court outlawed "religious ceremonies"
going on to say that a "prayer" was an integral part of a religious ceremony;
if you have a religious ceremony, it must contain prayer. Thus, proposed
amendments for "voluntary prayer" in public schools *are not necessary*.
Students now, at this moment, pray over their lunch trays, in the halls,
between classes, before they begin tests, and so on. The Supreme Court spoke
to organized or group prayer in schools, *whether the prayer was voluntary
Number 6 above speaks in an offhand way to the notion of volunteerism.
Can an Atheist child just sit and think? No, of course not. The emotional and
peer pressure is so great on a school child to do as the rest of the class does
or as the teacher directs or leads, that "civil disobedience" is not a
practical alternative for a student. Any student who failed to participate
would be the "dirty little Atheist" and would immediately be ostracized. Few
youngsters have the stamina to cope with their studies and complete ostracism
at the same time.
Number 7 speaks directly to "majority rule." Only a few days ago I
happened upon Jerry Falwell speaking from his pulpit in Virginia on one of our
local cable channels. He was talking about prayers in school so I stopped to
listen for a moment. I cannot quote him from memory now exactly, but in
general he said that he knew of many public school teachers who lead their
classes in prayer each and every day, sometimes with the knowledge of
administrators and sometimes not. He urged those teachers to continue that
practice. He quipped something very close to, "What are they going to do,
put them in jail?" Then after a pause he said, "Wouldn't that be a wonderful
thing to go to jail for?" - a direct encouragement for teachers to violate
the law in favor of their religious convictions.
Then the Huntsville [Alabama] Times reported again on July 1 that the
governor in that state, after forming a "family lobby" with his wife and son
for the bill, was ready to sign into law a bill allowing "willing teachers to
lead willing public school students in any prayer or a suggested offering of
[prayer] written by the governor's son...." In Louisiana an official
legislative attempt to back up the sentiments of the teachers', students', and
adminstrators' remarks above was overturned by the Fifth Federal Circuit Court
of Appeals in New Orleans standing by the 1963 Supreme Court ruling. In fact,
since 1963, there have been forty major challenges to the Supreme Court ruling
in both federal and state courts. All have been unsuccessful.
Since every federal legislative attempt to curb Supreme Court jurisdiction
on school prayer, or any of the other emotional issues I have cited, has
failed, and since state or local legislative attempts to circumvent the Court
on the issue have failed, a Constitutional Amendment attempt is the only thing
left. So far only two members of Congress have realized the true issue at
hand, that of preserving our checks-and-balances system of government. Those
two were Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Senator Lowell Weicker of
Connecticut, the latter leading a Senate filibuster on the busing issue.
If Congress chooses to curb High Court jurisdiction in one area, they can
one by one do the same in other areas until many minority causes that have been
so dearly won will go down the drain. Without a protest forum, what are we
to do as Atheists? The prospects are bleak indeed. Congress can make
exceptions to Supreme Court jurisdiction constitutionally, unfortunately.
I view this as one of two major flaws in an otherwise magnificent document.
Article III, Section 2, Paragraph 2 of the Constitution states, "In all other
cases before mentioned, ["to all cases, in law and equity, arising under this
constitution..."(Paragraph 1)] the Supreme Court shall have appellate
jurisdiction, both as to law and fact, with such exceptions, and under such
regulations as the Congress shall make."
Congress has not chosen to take full advantage of this checks-and-balances
loophole in prior sessions. With a combination of right-wing religious and
political figures in power now, the situation could change rapidly. Preserving
a forum of dissent for Atheists is now in doubt. The issue is of far more
importance than daily school prayer itself. The vehicle of school prayer is,
however, the most effective means of getting the job done by those who would
have a true One Nation *Under* God.
Can we stop our Constitution from being split up? I don't think so, not
at this point. Immediately after World War II our country plunged into a
course of action designed to reach this ultimate end of a complete "majority"
rule of theocracy. No one was around then to say no. No sufficient obstacle
has been placed in the path of the progress of theocracy in some thirty years
now, mostly because the "liberal" community refused to recognize the gravity
of *small* steps in a theocratic direction. Now that we are in the large-step
stage, it is too late to wake up. Everyone who ever said:
1. "In God We Trust on the money doesn't hurt anything. Don't nit-pick."
2. "One Nation Under God in the flag pledge doesn't hurt the kids.
3. "Who cares what our national motto is? In God We Trust is as good as
any other one. Don't nit-pick."
4. "Tax exemptions for churches are not subsidies. They just protect the
church from government. Don't nit-pick."
5. "A little prayer in school never hurt anyone. Don't nit-pick."
6. "All Atheists have to be Communists; you can't be a Communist and
believe in god. Don't nit-pick. Anti-communist legislation which
puts god on top of our nation is for your own protection."
...deserves everything that they are sure to get; they have had it coming
for years. What bothers me is- that I have to take the medicine too, and I
am not sick.
[Reprinted from the editorial of the August 1982 issue of
American Atheist magazine]
For more information, write to:
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P.O. Box 140195
Austin, Texas 78714-0195
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