God is banished from the classroom?

Note: This discussion should be considered applicable to the United States only.

Prayers are one of the dominating themes of religion. They range from simple verbal requests to a deity to offerings, sacrifices, and ceremonies trying to win the deity’s favor or praise, or to ask that they not be vanquished in some weather phenomenon that would otherwise cause half a town to disappear.

So with prayer a theme in religion, and given the majority of individuals in the United States are some brand of theist, it is no surprise that prayer used to be present in public schools, initiated and led by teachers or school officers before being declared unconstitutional.

So what was the issue with school prayer? I mean students who did not want to participate were under no direct obligation to do so. But there’s the key word: direct. There’s the feeling of isolation and humiliation if a student does not participate. A student may be ostracized, harassed, or even physically assaulted because of differing religious beliefs.

School is a tough enough time as it is for students, both mentally and socially. With the school initiating the prayer, the feelings of isolation and humiliation are increased, and the assistance the school may provide to students not participating, should trouble arise from the non-participation, may be minimized if the school is sanctioning the activity.

And if you want proof of this, watch this video:

Schools are not places for prayer. The school should not care if a particular student is Christian or atheist, and the school should not foster an environment where tension may arise due to differences of that nature by favoring one religion.

So how was “prayer in schools” declared unconstitutional and why? Because an “activist” Supreme Court hated the idea of prayer? Because a more progressive culture was trying to eliminate God from our culture? Not quite.

To answer this question, we need to first look back to 1963. The case in question was School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp1. Consolidated into this case is the one that involved Madalyn Murray O’Hair (b. 1919, d. 1995), so if you hear that “Madalyn Murray O’Hair got prayer removed from schools”, consider the phrase to be an exaggeration.

The Abington case centered around a law in Pennsylvania:

At least ten verses from the Holy Bible shall be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day. Any child shall be excused from such Bible reading, or attending such Bible reading, upon the written request of his parent or guardian.2

In Abingdon Senior High School, the opening exercises included reciting the statutory ten bible verses, followed by a recitation of the Lord’s prayer, a flag salute or the pledge of allegiance, then the morning announcements. All of this was broadcast over the school’s intercom or, in schools that had no intercom, the morning prayer exercises were conducted by the teacher.

At the first trial in this case’s docket history, the children of the complainant testified that the practice in question ran “contrary to the religious beliefs they held, and to their familial teaching”. The trial court subsequently struck down the practice and the law compelling it, citing that attendance at the public school was compulsory under law, as were the practices required by the aforementioned statute.

The trial court called the compulsory statutory religious practices a “religious observance”, noting that the government of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania “prefers the Christian religion” and also intended to “introduce a religious ceremony into the public schools”.

Earlier still in 1947, the Supreme Court declared in Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing that the Establishment Clause means:

neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.

[The First Amendment] requires the state to be a neutral in its relations with groups of religious believers and nonbelievers; it does not require the state to be their adversary. State power is no more to be used so as to handicap religions than it is to favor them.3

In its ruling in the Abington Township case, the Court further stated:

While the Free Exercise Clause clearly prohibits the use of state action to deny the rights of free exercise to anyone, it has never meant that a majority could use the machinery of the State to practice its beliefs.4

In other words, voters can no more use the ballot box to enact laws that concern religion than can they use the legislature to the same end. Both are prohibited.

I’ve said before that the will of the majority must be tempered against the rights of the minority. We are not a democracy where the will of the majority rules always. We are a republic where the rights of all must be considered against the actions of the government, for the purpose of government is to protect the rights of all.

You will notice a common theme in all of these cases as well: the Courts have held that the government cannot compel prayer among students in public schools. This is because students are a captive audience in a public school because their presence in the public school is by mandate of law unless other options provided by law are exercised, such as home schooling.

Any religious practice by students on a public school campus should be entirely of the student’s free will and not compelled or mandated by school rules, city ordinances, or state laws. It should also be on the student’s own free time, outside the classroom such as in a study hall or, if in the classroom, in such a way that it is not disruptive to other students.

Teachers and school officers cannot initiate or lead prayer among the students. And if you look at all of the Court cases, they have been in regard to, and in prohibition of, school officials or teachers in some way initiating or endorsing prayer on a large scale in a public school, and in some of these cases, it was religious families filing suits against the schools.5

Has God been taken out of public schools? No.

But many people seem to think that the Courts ruling that the government cannot mandate prayer in a public school is equivalent to saying no one can pray in a public school. This is not true, yet this idea has so permeated our society and is propagated so far and wide that many have called on Congress to remedy the situation through, you guessed it, and amendment to the Constitution of the United States as Paul here recites from a newspaper’s opinion page (he is talking primarily to other atheists who make videos about religion on YouTube):

Ever heard of the School Prayer Amendment? This is the text of the proposed amendment:

To secure the people’s right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: The people’s right to pray and to recognize their religious beliefs, heritage, or traditions on public property, including schools, shall not be infringed. The Government shall not require any person to join in prayer or other religious activity, initiate or designate school prayers, discriminate against religion, or deny equal access to a benefit on account of religion.

Looking at this proposed amendment, it doesn’t appear that it will change the situation at all. In fact, it looks like it only reinforces the Supreme Court’s rulings on the subject.

The School Prayer Amendment was primarily championed by the late-Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), and failed to pass or died in committee each time it was introduced, most recently in April 2006 where it died in the Senate Judiciary Committee.6 7 If you count the attempts, he tried to introduce the bill about eight times, if I’ve counted them properly.

In 1998 the House of Representatives took up the effort, but in the vote on the proposed Amendment on June 4, 1998, the House of Representatives fell short of the votes needed to clear just one of the constitutional hurdles in the amendment process.8 This appears to be the only time such an amendment proposal has actually made it to a floor vote in either house of Congress.

But let’s get back to the question: is God banished from the classroom? No.

Your child is allowed to pray in school.

For example, a student who is permitted to read non-curricular materials during the student’s free time is permitted to also read the Bible or other religious text, as it would also be a non-curricular material. This free time may include lunch, study halls, or even downtime following a test. Any rules regarding socializing during that free time should be observed.

A student who wishes may also say a small prayer before a test, if the student feels the desire or need to do so, but in a silent manner that would not be disruptive to students who chose to not say a prayer. Should the student be allowed to engage other students in a prayer circle before a test? No, and the reason is because that prayer circle could grow to encompass the entire classroom, and the very feeling that banning school-sanctioned prayer would have prevented suddenly creeps into focus again.

A student who wishes may also say a prayer during lunch before eating. If all students at the same lunch table wish to say a prayer, then by all means, let them. But they should in no way interfere with students at that table who wish to eat without first praying.

Now bear in mind that a teacher or school administrator can ask the student to not pray if the exercise is found to be disruptive, or change the exercise so it is not disruptive or in violation of school rules and/or applicable laws. For example a student standing in a foyer preaching the Gospel can and will be removed, as such preaching actually violates the religious rights of other students.

But the Establishment Clause is clear: the school, its faculty and officers, cannot perform any kind of action that shows or implies favor to one religious denomination over another. To do so is discriminatory to students who do not follow the practices or teachings of that denomination, let alone that religion.

But by all means, students can pray in public schools.

References   [ + ]

1. 374 US 203 (1963)
2. 24 Pa.Stat. § 15-1516, as amended, Pub.Law 1928 (Supp. 1960) Dec. 17, 1959
3. Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing, 330 US 1 at 15,18 (1947)
4. 374 US 203 at 226
5. Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe, 530 US 290 (2000): A Catholic and Mormon family filed suit under the moniker “Jane Doe” with regard to school-sponsored, but student-led prayer at a football game.
6. Associated Press. (2006, April 30). “Sen. Byrd introduces amendment allowing school prayer“.
7. Senate Joint Resolution 35: “A joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States to clarify that the Constitution neither prohibits voluntary prayer nor requires prayer in schools.”
8. Van Biema, David (1998, April 27). “Spiriting Prayer Into School“. Time.