Public School Prayer: Is it Constitutional and Moral?
Proponents of allowing public school prayer cite both legal and moral reasons to allow prayer in public schools. On a legal basis they state that banning prayer in public schools is a violation of our First Amendment right of Free Exercise. From a moral standpoint they cite the so-called degeneration of the public school system and the so-called declining quality of public education along with an overall decline in American society as a result of the public schools no longer teaching morals. This lack of moral instruction is linked to the ban on prayer in public schools. However, proponents of public school prayer have overlooked the big picture and are the victims of biased reasoning. By not allowing prayer and the exercise of religious ceremonies in public schools the Supreme Court has protected our First Amendment rights and at the same time adhered to sound moral principles.
The Legal Debate: "Freedom of Religion is not Freedom FROM Religion"
The fervor surrounding the issue of prayer in public schools first surfaced following the Engel v. Vitale (1962) ruling. Prior to this case school prayer was not uncommon in public schools. This case was brought to trial and eventually went to the Supreme Court by the families of students in the New Hyde Park, New York public school system who charged that daily voluntary prayers said in school contradicted their religious beliefs. The parents received support by other groups that were opposed to public school prayer arguing that school prayer was a violation of Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, particularly the clause that states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Schwarz (1968) reported that twenty-two states urged the verification of the New York Court of Appeals upholding the constitutionality of prayer in public schools, but the Court held in favor of the plaintiff. The decision to hold for the plaintiff was not popular with general public and Congress put together a serious of hearings to discover ways to allow prayer in the public school system, but despite this origin of an organized interest group to reinstate prayer in the public school system the ruling in the Engel v. Vitale (1962) case has been the foundation for disallowing prayer in a number of public school forums.
Following the ruling many supporters of prayer in public schools doubted that other relating rulings banning the expression of prayer in public places would follow. Nonetheless, in the decades following Engel v. Vitale numerous additional rulings from courts across all levels have prohibited or infringed on the public expression of prayer across numerous settings from graduation ceremonies to city council meetings to prayer in courtrooms. However, these rulings have not quieted those who are pro-prayer. There has been a steady sentiment, especially from the political right, to restore public school prayer and this sentiment has even been expressed by several past United States Presidents.
One of the pro-prayer arguments has concerned the content of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment, especially its proposed contradiction with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The issue with prayer proponents is that the Establishment Clause excludes any sponsorship of the State for religion or religious activities, whereas the Free Exercise Clause prohibits the State from interfering in the free exercise of individual religious expression (barring crimes like child abuse, murder, etc.). School prayer proponents rightly assert that the First Amendment does not contain the exact words "separation of church and State" even though a majority of Americans have come to believe that it does. Instead these proponents rightly state that the First Amendment allows Americans the freedom to worship without interference from the government and protects against the establishment of a State Religion along with freedom of speech and other individual freedoms. The actual words "separation of church and State" have been traced to a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut discussing religious freedom. According to many of the pro-prayer proponents Jefferson went on to say that the separation was meant to be one directional in that it was to protect the church from the state but not vice versa. These proponents state that Jefferson used this phrase to keep Christian principles in government; however, this is an utter falsehood. One can read Jefferson's letter and clearly see that the letter says nothing about Christian principles in government or protecting the church (Cousins, 1988). Furthermore these sentiments appear nowhere in the any of Jefferson's writings or in any of his speeches and clash sharply with his well-known support of church-state separation and religious freedom. Jefferson's use of this phrase was to bring attention to the First Amendment as a protector of religious freedom from government interference (see Dreisbach & Hall, 2009 for a full discussion of this issue). Thus, school prayer proponents maintain that the abolition of prayer in public schools is unconstitutional and a violation of individual rights.
Moreover these same proponents argue that the abolition of prayer in school is discriminatory. They cite court decisions that they interpret as discrimination against religion. For instance they state that freedom of speech is guaranteed to public school students, unless the topic is religious, at which time it is unconstitutional or that it is unconstitutional for students to wear clothes with the Ten Commandments on them since they might read or obey them (Barton, 2009).
However, when deciding cases involving free exercise of religion, the Supreme Court has tended to weigh the scales heavily in favor of individual rights. The First Amendment rights have been traditionally considered by the Supreme Court to be so valuable that there must be a demonstration of a compelling State interest before the Court will constitutionally limit individual freedoms. In terms of the current discussion, before the Court will place limitations on the individual's freedom of religious expression there must be an overwhelming public interest that is threatened by an the individual's religious practice. According to Fundukian and Wilson (2005) when the State or a State-sponsored institution such as a public school obliges the right to free expression of religion under the Free Exercise Clause the challengers of such free expression can charge that this is actually a promotion by the State of that particular religious activity over other religious and secular activities/beliefs. Thus, with respect to the treatment of the Free Exercise Clause Court rulings have been in favor of the notion that public school prayer cannot be forbidden unless such activity can be shown to cause disruption in the school or to threaten individual rights. For example in a famous case before the ban on school prayer, West Virginia v. Barnette (1943), a family of Jehovah's Witnesses living in Virginia sued the West Virginia Board of Education. The school requirement that the children stand and repeat the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of each school day was contested because saluting the flag was contrary to the religious beliefs of the plaintiffs in this case. The argument that the children were deprived of their right to freely exercise their religious beliefs because of this school requirement was upheld by the Court agreed, which is a clear example of the court giving priority to the individual's freedom of religion.
The Supreme Court has rightly upheld the notion that if a public school class is led in a prayer by a teacher or even by a student the non-believing students (either non-believing or those with different religious convictions) might feel uncomfortable and might also feel compelled or be coerced to participate. Thus, to avoid being ostracized someone may participate in the prayer or other religious ceremony. The Court has argued that government authority and resources (in this case a public school) have been used to establish a religion or to compel an individual to participate in religious ceremonies. This is a violation of the First Amendment.
The Moral Debate: Public School Prayer Makes Better Schools and a Better America
School prayer proponents state that since the ban on public school prayer in the 1960's there have been a decline in the quality of public schools. For example, in the late 1990's there were several well publicized school shootings across the country that shocked many. They charge that before the government removed "God" from public schools (via the banning of prayer) the United States had one of the best public school systems in the world. Following the public school prayer ban there was a steady decline in student performance. Forty years after the ban on prayer U.S. schools are ranked at or near the bottom of the Industrialized Nations of the world. One can read numerous pro-prayer websites that list all of the issues in the current U.S. public school system and blame them on the ban on public prayer (Barton, 2009; Scott, 2006).
C. David Barton an American evangelical Christian minister has attributed all kinds of declines in American society…