Henry Hyde And Me by Dorothy Klein (August 1995)

President Clinton has assigned the question of school prayer into the lap of the Department of Education, if they choose to assume it; at any rate, it is superior to the notion of an amendment to the First Amendment or inflicting coercive prayer on captive audiences. It is well to remember, however, that before educational innovations are introduced into any curriculum, years of research, testing and study are needed during which time, double-blind-type studies and other kinds of scientific investigations are employed to analyze the pros and cons of the claims made for the change.

As part of a research paper, while a graduate student several years ago, I chose the subject of “school prayer.” Ever since the Supreme Court had declared school prayer unconstitutional in 1962, Fundamentalist Christians and others had been blaming almost every social and natural disaster on the “removing of god from the classroom.” Scholars have now had almost 35 years to test whether those schools that flouted the Supreme Court decision by continuing school prayer have any better track record in the areas of drug abuse, delinquency, deadbeat dads, divorce rate or any of the schrechlichheits (to quote one of the rabbi witnesses at the hearings) that same Fundamentalists ascribed to the banning of school prayer.

After phoning in vain the offices of Newt Gingrich, the Economic and Educational Committee’s office, Gerrold Nadler’s office and others, all of whom told me, “Oh, we don’t have that kind of information here!” and referring me to the next representative’s office, I finally phoned Henry Hyde’s office, which informed me there were to be hearings Monday, July 11 at Hunter College on the subject of Religious Freedom and the Bill of Rights, actually “school prayer.”

I arrived on time and was amazed to see almost every seat taken, and soon realized there were two major claques–the automonymic Fundamentalists (who seemed to shout on signal), and the thoughtful, serious Others, who appeared to outnumber the automatons. As I had been assured that I would get an answer to my question, I listened and waited. Again in vain. I did hear both Hyde and his first witness, Cardinal O’Connor, bashing secular humanism as they deplored “Christian bashing” and “Catholic bashing.”

O’Connor came with no prepared statement, but he did present his group as a victim. He didn’t seem to know that the subject of the inquiry was school prayer, and the chair did not bring him to order as he rambled on. He did say that the Catholics did education cheaper, but he failed to remark that Catholics and other private schools screen their children in advance and generally have the privilege of choosing the most educable. Catholics are on the record supporting public school prayer as long as they are properly Catholic. Nothing nondenominational for them.

When Gerrold Nadler left after his excellent speech, I tried to catch up with him. His aide didn’t seem to remember my earlier call during which I had urged that Nadler demand scientific studies to show that the “outlaw” schools were any better. There may have been more than the usual number of death threats to this committee this day because as soon as I, a middle-class, middle-aged woman, approached Nadler, he became inordinately nervous and gave me very short shrift. He seemed to avoid the question of evidence. And so, I left him as he faced a news camera, without an answer. His aide, however, slipped me his card and I phoned him the next day. He spoke of the difficulty of dealing with legislators who have such little regard for empirical evidence that there’s almost no talking to them. They cite testimony given by unreliable, emotional witnesses, so that the Nadler and other staffs are constantly frustrated.

Back to the hearings on the 11th. After speaking to Nadler, I caught up with Pat Schroeder, who agreed that there was no scientific support for the school prayer notion, but she said, regretfully, “They just want a quick fix.” I was beginning to feel like Michael Moore in Roger and Me.

When I returned to the lecture hall, the meeting had adjourned and, as I walked out into the New York City sunshine, I spotted Henry Hyde and entourage. I called his name and he turned around, also quite nervously. He gave me a moment to ask the question: “Are you aware of any scientific studies supporting the idea of school prayer?” As he ducked into a taxi, he thought for a second and said, “No, none that I ever heard of.”

And so, the public school prayer seems to rest on largely subjective, sentimental foundations. This morning, however, I phoned the office of Rep. Canady, chair of the sub-committee on “Religious Liberty and the Bill of Rights,” which had sponsored the hearing at Hunter, and spoke to the press person, Ms. Michelle Morgan. I put the same question to her, and she thought the idea of scientific justifications was quite a novel idea. “Why don’t you do such testing?” she suggested.

As a teacher with more than 25 years’ experience, I know that I almost never had a child ask me to pray in class. It’s already permitted to pray, and children do it regularly, notably before math and other tests. There’s no stopping it, although no scientific studies exist to show the efficacy of such activities.

Dorothy Klein is a Foundation member from New York.

Freedom From Religion Foundation