"This crusade will continue," Minority Leader Everett Dirksen pledged after an uneasy Senate failed to support his constitutional amendment to permit voluntary prayer in public schools. "The next time we will be better organized throughout the country."
At the same time, Dirksen announced that Dr. Daniel A. Poling, 81-year-old clergyman-author from New York, will direct the new campaign, and Poling hinted strongly that the charismatic Dr. Billy Graham intends to throw his influence and evangelical ferver into the struggle.
It would be pleasant to assume that Dirksen's promise to fight on for school prayer is no more than the bitter epilogue to the story of the amendment's defeat. But the senator has some reason to believe that he can successfully revive the issue. The vote was close--49 to 37 in favor of the proposal, only nine votes short of the required two-thirds present and voting--and many senators were unhappy about being faced with the question at all.
Religious controversies inflame emotions, and a vote against prayer for even the best constitutional and moral reasons still leaves a senator open to a demagogic attack in his next campaign. Mail ran heavily in favor of the amendment, and even though most religious groups denounced the Dirksen proposal, one Billy Graham is worth a dozen church organizations in political potency.
The reasons why the amendment is a bad one have been covered many times. It is dangerous because it is a positive step toward state support of religion as well as a direct attack on the First Amendment. It is meaningless, because school children will be coerced into "voluntary" participation because they do not want to be different from the majority of their classmates. Many national leaders, including President Kennedy, have insisted that the church and the home are the places where religion should be taught, not the school.
But even though the amendment is dead for this session of Congress, the danger remains that Dirksen will cling to the hope of passing it at some future date, and may devote his considerable power as minority leader to his crusade. Dirksen's concern is needed for more important legislation. With President Johnson's once-formidable legislative phalanx fragmenting, the Administration needs Republican help badly in Congress. Dirksen has the ability to deliver the kind of bipartisan support that Johnson himself gave President Eisenhower, or to with-hold it -- as he did over the new civil rights bill. With vital legislation teetering between passage and defeat, Dirksen could tip the vote against bills in order to drum up bargaining power for his prayer amendment. And if the Republicans make the expected off-year gains this November in the Senate, the minority leader's leverage will increase.
The best advice for Dirksen to heed now is: quit wasting your time. With controversial and crucial problems needing Congressional action, this is no time for a man of Dirksen's importance to attempt to combat religious decay, real or imagined, with an amendment of dubious value. Dirksen can perform a positive role in the Senate, but only if he confines his attention to the questions that need and deserve a legislative solution.