The politics of prayer, addressing political platforms

The Republican Platform mentions prayer twice. The first mention is on page 44-45:

We will energetically assert the right of students to engage in voluntary prayer in schools and to have equal access to school facilities for religious purposes.

I should note that the Democratic Platform is silent with regard to prayer. A search for the word "prayer" comes up empty, while a search for the word "pray" brings up a quote regarding healthcare.

Contrary to popular conservative belief, reflected in the above quote, no one asserts that students do not have the right to engage in voluntary religious activities in schools. The only dispute is the appropriate time on school grounds.

I’ve already had a lengthy discussion about religion and prayer on school grounds in the article called "God is banished from the classroom?", so I won’t go into it any further here.

The second mention of prayer is on page 52-53:

We support the right of students to engage in student-initiated, student-led prayer in public schools, athletic events, and graduation ceremonies, when done in conformity with constitutional standards.

Here is where things start getting clouded and additional discussion is needed to clarify this. Again, no one disputes the right of students to pray, so we don’t need to go into that. However with this statement by the Republican party, now we have times and places to discuss, and it’s clear they are expressing disdain with United States Supreme Court decisions, where these times and places have already been discussed.

Here are the applicable decisions to the individual events listed:

  • Athletic events: Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe, 530 US 290 (2000)
  • Graduation ceremonies: Lee v. Weisman, 505 US 577 (1992)
  • Prayer in public schools: Engel v. Vitale, 370 US 421 (1962), Abington Township School District v. Schempp, 374 US 203 (1963)
  • Student-led prayer in pubic schools: Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 US 28 (1985)

For the purposes of disclosure, here are the religious affiliations of those who brought the original lawsuits that made their way to the Supreme Court.

  • Santa Fe v. Jane Doe: Jane Doe was a representative moniker for "Mormon and Catholic students or alumni and their mothers"1
  • Lee v. Weisman: Deborah Weisman and her father Daniel, who brought the case, is Jewish2
  • Engel v. Vitale: The original lawsuit was brought by five citizens of the district in question: Steven I. Engel, Daniel Lichtenstein, Monroe Lerner, Lenore Lyons and Lawrence Roth.3 The religious affiliation of each petitioner is unknown.
  • Abington Township v. Schempp: Edward Schempp was a Unitarian Universalist.4 Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her son, Jon Garth Murray, were atheists.5
  • Wallace v. Jaffree: According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Ishmael Jaffree is agnostic.6

All of these cases brought before the Court school-led or school-sanctioned prayer activities involving students. None of these cases involved students wishing to pray on their own time. These cases involved the schools or legislatures establishing time during the school day or during school activities or functions specifically for prayer.

If students want to pray on school grounds, they are welcome to do so, on their own time, and of their own free will. During school functions or normal class time, where the students are part of a captive audience, the waters become quite a bit more murky. Again I’ve already discussed this at length, so I won’t go into it again here.

But the question that needs to be asked is this: in regard to the words "when done in conformity with constitutional standards", from the second quote from the Republican Platform, do they mean constitutional standards stemming from long precedent out of the Supreme Court and Circuit Courts of the United States, or their own interpretation of constitutional standards? And if the latter, what is their interpretation?

References   [ + ]

1. According to text of decision for Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe, 530 US 290 (2000)
2. Hall, Kermit L. "Lee v. Weisman." The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. 2005.
3. Engel v. Vitale, 191 N.Y.S.2d 453 (1959) (Text of Decision)
4. Abington School District v. Schempp. (2010, September 6). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
5. Madalyn Murray O’Hair. (2010, September 19). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
6. Freedom From Religion Foundation. "Freethought of the Day, March 28".