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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Why do only Muslims get to pray in public schools?

Guess what, they are not the only religious group that is allowed to pray in schools.

In 1984, the Federal Equal Access Act was passed, affecting all public secondary schools that received federal funds.

It required that religious clubs be permitted in public schools if other clubs which were also not related to the curriculum were already allowed. These religious groups had to be run by the students themselves, and could not be convened during class time. Membership in the group had to be voluntary.

This would allow Christian students to also pray in school. It simply does not allow the school itself to be in charge, you know, like when the Muslim children pray by themselves.

There is a secret about prayer in the public schools that the religious right doesn't want you to know: school prayer, like most religious activity, is legal. Completely, thoroughly, and absolutely legal. It was not outlawed in the 1960's; it has never been outlawed. Despite repeated claims to the contrary, the Supreme Court has not made schools a "religion free zone," has not "kicked God out of the public schools," has not "made it illegal to speak about God," and has not "made it illegal to pray in school." These claims are false, and the religious right knows this. Rather, the religious right popularizes these claims to make religious persons believe that their rights are being suppressed in the public schools, thereby gaining support for their political program.
How do we know this? Because when the religious right organizations go to court to argue in favor of the rights of students they quote the law correctly. In court they will argue that there is nothing in the school prayer decisions of the 1960s that prevents students from praying. 

The law with respect to school prayer is clear: when organized, supported, or required by the state, school prayer is illegal. 
Briefly, state-supported prayer amounts to the establishment of a religious practice. This is true whether the state actually prescribes the prayer to be said, or allows teachers and students to compose the prayer as they see fit. Let's use the famous Engle v. Vitale case to illustrate our argument.
Engle v. Vitale revolved around a New York law that required school officials to publically recite each school day the following prayer, composed by the New York Board of Regents:
  • Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.
The Court correctly ruled that the New York law violated the First Amendment. Indeed it's difficult to image how the Court could have ruled otherwise. Prayer is, without question, a religious exercise, and when the state requires that a prayer be recited, it is establishing a religious practice. Additionally, it violates free exercise for the state to expose students to prayer against their will, or to force students to absent themselves from the classroom to avoid a prayer they do not want to hear. Finally, please note that, despite the fact that this prayer was written to be as general and non-sectarian as possible, it still establishes religious beliefs, beliefs that surely do not reflect the religious sensibilities of many students. Christians, for example, might justifiably complain that the prayer is not offered in the name of Christ, while polytheists and adherents to new-age religions might have problems with the implied assertion that there is a single God, or that this God is almighty. And non-theists would certainly object to repeating words that imply that they are "dependent" on a God in which they do not believe. No matter how charitably one views the facts of Engle v. Vitale, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Regents' prayer would not be acceptable to many students.

  • Prayer does not establish a religion. Correct. It establishes a religious practice, which is just as illegal. The First Amendment does not proscribe the establishment of areligion; it proscribes establishment of religion generally. It is no more correct to argue that the state can require prayer so long as that prayer is non-sectarian than it is correct to argue that the state can require that you attend a religious service once a month so long as the state does not designate the service you have to attend.
  • It doesn't harm a kid to have him/her pray. "Harm" is in the eye of the beholder. An atheist might very well consider it harmful to expose kids to religious doctrines he/she considers false and destructive. Similarly, in the years before Engle v. Vitale Catholic parents definitely considered it harmful when their children were asked to recite the Protestant version of the Lord's prayer, or were asked to read from the King James Version of the Bible which, to Catholic tastes, is translated incorrectly.
  • Proscribing prayer deprives parents of their right to have prayer if they want it. No it doesn't. Prayer remains completely legal in the public schools. A parent can still instruct a child to prayer in the tradition of his or her family, and teachers must legally respect the student's right to pray so long as those prayers do not disrupt the educational mission of the schools. On the contrary, the only thing limited by proscribing organized prayer in the schools is the rights of some parents to determine whatother kids will have to pray.
  • Why not just set aside a time for prayer in the morning and let kids pray as they want? Generally, such proposals are legal, so long as the time is not set aside exclusively for prayer. Moment of silence laws, for example, have been found to be legal by the Supreme Court. But if the statute sets the time aside for prayer, it amounts to the state favoring prayer over other activities, and further declares that prayer is an appropriate activity at certain times and places in the school day. The state has no right to do either of these things.

Would a school prayer amendment even work?

Aside from issues of constitutionality, there remains the issue of whether school prayer would be beneficial, either for the public schools or for the nation as a whole. Supporters of school prayer sometimes assume that the value of prayer is self-evident, but we are skeptical. In fact, school prayer has the potential to be a profoundly negative force in American life. Consider the following:
  • School prayer would be divisive. In the years before state-supported prayer was made illegal, religious minorities were made to feel uncomfortable and excluded by mandated prayer. Jews, in particular, chaffed under the requirement to either pray Christian prayers, read from Christian Bibles, or be forced to stand in the hall. Catholics resented the protestant flavor the public schools. Other minorities (in particular, Jehovah's Witnesses) were made to feel ostracized by prayers that were not addressed to Jehovah. In recent decades the number of adherents to non-Western religions has significantly increased (it is now estimated that there are more Muslims in the United States than Jews). Finally, some students have no faith in religion at all, and take exception to being forced to participate in any type of religious ritual. It's difficult to image how school prayer in these circumstances can be anything other than a point of division between students, parents and teachers. In today's society, this is something we do not need.
  • School prayer will compromise the religious rights of teachers. Some school prayer proposals do not specify that the state will write prayers for students. Rather, these proposals allow local school boards to compose prayers, or would allow teachers to compose them. In any of these circumstances the religious rights of teachers will be compromised. It is bad enough for students to be required to sit through prayers they find to be unacceptable; it is intolerable to be forced as part of one's job to lead others in these prayers. It is equally intolerable to force non-believing teachers to lead prayers. Finally, believing teacher may well feel pressured to make their prayers generic in circumstances in which they are asked to compose prayers of their own, rather than offend their students. School prayer, in other words, will place teachers in an uncomfortable situation into which they ought not to be forced.
  • There is no evidence school prayer will improve our nation's moral life. Contrary to common assumptions, there is simply no evidence that school prayers will go any distance whatsoever in improving American morality. We do not understand how the rote repetition of a one or two line prayer with little theological content is going to do anything to challenge students to lead ethical lives. While we believe in the efficacy of prayer, we doubt that prayer means anything to people when they are forced to say it, and when it says nothing of consequence. Pre-World War II Germany is an apt illustration of our point. In the years before and after the rise of Hitler, German school children were required to say a non-sectarian prayer every morning, and received religious instruction for at least one hour a week in the public schools (Catholics, Protestants, and Jews were separated into groups and were taught by state approved religious leaders). Despite this training (which is considerably more than that proposed by American school prayer advocates), Germany still opted for Nazism, and still implemented the final solution. School prayer did not stop public evil in Germany. Neither, we think, will it stop public evil in the United States.

In 1995, responding to a directive from the President, the federal Department of Education issued a memo to public school superintendents which discussed religious freedoms in schools.

Some principles stated were:

  • students can read religious books, say a prayer before meals and pray before tests, etc. to the same extent that they may engage in comparable secular non-disruptive activities
  • In informal settings (cafeterias, hallways, etc.) students may pray and may discuss religious topics with other students, just as they may talk about other subjects
  • Students can proselytize with other students; however they cannot engage in religiously motivated harassment
  • No student can be coerced into participating in any religious activity
  • Teachers and administrators cannot discourage or promote religious activity because of its religious content; this applies to anti-religious activity as well.
  • Schools can teach about religion and its role in society; they can teach about the Bible as literature. But they cannot provide religious instruction.
  • Students can distribute religious literature in the same way that they are permitted to distribute non-religious literature.
  • Students may be released to attend religious classes at other location; teachers and administrators cannot encourage or discourage students from taking advantage of such classes
  • Schools can teach about common civic values, but they must be neutral with respect to religion.

In 1999, the U.S. Department of Education updated and re-issued the 1995 guidelines on religion in schools. Sections that dealt with student garb and religious excusals were revised to reflect the Supreme Court's finding that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was unconstitutional.

Because that act was no longer in force, schools were now freer to decide whether students could wear religious garb such as yarmulkes and head scarves to class. Schools now could also allow or not allow students to be excused from classes that conflict with their religious beliefs.

Secretary Riley made three recommendations to local school boards and teachers:

  1. to recognize that in an increasingly diverse religious society that every school board should adopt a policy on religious expression
  2. to inform teachers early on about the role of religion in public schools through workshops and schools of education
  3. to actively inform parents about student's rights to religious expression as well as freedom of conscience.

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