Prayer in Public Schools
and Graduation Ceremonies
Dr. W. Kenneth Williams, Scholar-in-Residence
Baptist Joint Committee
Washington, D.C.

State sponsored prayer in the public schools, whether in the classroom or at graduation ceremonies, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and offends the consciences of those would not choose to participate in the prayers. This does not mean that students are prevented from engaging in voluntary private prayer in accordance with their own religious tradition and convictions, only that they cannot ask the state to help them do it.

Those favoring prayer in the public schools believe that government has the responsibility to interject religion into the educational process. They reason that American's history tells of religious peoples seeking freedom to exercise their religious commitments. They reason, further, that the framers of American democracy were religious persons who intended government to reflect a generalized faith while defending against the establishment of any particular faith. Therefore, exposing school children to a divine referent through non-sectarian prayers at the beginning of the school day or in graduation exercises is defensible. It continues a well-founded American tradition, contributes to general morality, undergirds the spiritual welfare of impressionable children, and is generalized enough so as to be inoffensive to religious minorities.

Reason gives way to emotion when the premises of school prayer supporters' logic is challenged. Ever since the Supreme Court's landmark decisions of the early 1960s holding school-sponsored prayer to be unconstitutional, school prayer proponents have made increasingly emotional appeals to restore prayer in schools, essentially making their case on the basis of majority rule. In spite of these efforts, the Supreme Court has consistently held to the notion of governmental neutrality concerning prayer in schools.

The focus of the debate lately has shifted from the classroom to graduation ceremonies. Most recently, in Lee v. Weisman (1991), the school's principal selected the cleric and gave him guidelines to follow in fashioning his prayer. This amounted to an establishment of religion, said the Supreme Court, and therefore violated the First Amendment.

Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, declared that the government cannot make religious conformity the price for attending one's graduation ceremony. In his concurring opinion, Justice Souter made this observation: "One may fairly say ... that the government brought prayer into the [graduation] ceremony precisely because some people want a symbolic affirmation that government approves and endorses their religion, and because many of the people who want this affirmation place little or no value on the costs to religious minorities.'"

Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, a legal advocacy group established in counterpoint to the American Civil Liberties Union, has sought to capitalize on a 1993 case that the Supreme Court chose not to review. In Jones v. Clear Creek Independent School District, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals held it permissible for a student to say a "non-proselytizing, non-sectarian" prayer in graduation ceremonies, if the students voted to have prayer. The ACLJ sees the Supreme Court's choice not to hear the case as tacit approval of the lower court's resolution.

This is wrong. The Supreme Court receives more than 6,000 petitions for review annually. It accepts only a little over 100. Does this mean that the court approves of the other 5,900? No. It is simply impossible for the high court to review every case presented to it. The ACLJ is making a claim that cannot be legally supported.

Other points to consider: It is not true that God has been thrown out of the public schools. Students may offer private prayers, read their scriptures during free time, and often may gather in groups for religious purposes before and after classes, so long as the school is not the sponsor and no member of the staff or faculty participates.

The proper place for corporate prayer at the time of school graduation is in a place of worship. Baccalaureate services sponsored by a community's religious institutions reflect the very bedrock of American tradition free people exercising their chosen religious commitments under the absolute protection of a free state.

The liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights are not subject to majority vote. In fact, they are "counter majoritarian" established for the very purpose of defending minorities against the tyranny of majority action. The framers of our republic saw that majority rule can be as oppressive as that of a powerful dictator. The use of public schools to endorse and promote the religious sensibilities of the majority rides roughshod over the rights of those of minority persuasions, or those who desire no exposure to religious practice at all.

There is no such thing as a "non-sectarian" prayer. It is a contradiction in terms like "grape-nuts." It is really neither one. True prayer has to come out of some sectarian tradition. And if it could somehow be made truly "non-sectarian," it would not be prayer. Moreover, prayer reflects the missional purposes of a particular religion. Therefore, how can there be, by definition, prayer that is "non-proselytizing"? Such prayers have the same banal effect as letters bearing the salutation "To Whom It May Concern."

Children are impressionable. They can be easily confused when the religious traditions of their home life conflict with the traditions to which they are exposed at school. Religious instruction should be left to the home and to the religious institutions, thus freeing children particularly those of minority persuasions from the pressures to conform to the majority.

However well intended, the reasoning of those who support state sponsored prayers in the public schools is flawed. Government cannot endorse religion. It is not the government's place to endorse the religious practices of the majority culture. Prayer is a private matter, to be taught in the places that are most competent for such instructionthe religious institutions of our communities. We uphold the best of our democratic ideals when the roles of church and state are well separated. u

Talking Points About Prayer In School

Rob Boston Americans United for Separation of Church and State Silver Spring, Maryland

Much confusion exists in the minds of the American people over the issue of prayer in public schools. Religious Right groups have added to this confusion by making untrue claims about school prayer. This article gives responses to some of the Religious Right's most common claims about the issue.

The Religious Right would have Americans believe a great deal of mythology about prayer in public schools. According to the Religious Right, even voluntary school prayer is illegal. They say students can be expelled for reading the Bible during free time and that religion can't be discussed in any context in public school classrooms.

None of this is true. Students are free to engage in voluntary prayer in public schools and may read religious texts during their free time. In addition, public schools all over the country use the Bible and other types of religious literature in objective programs of instruction designed to teach about religion.

Here are some common Religious Right arguments in favor of government involvement in school prayer with responses:

Statement: Children can't pray in public schools. Yes, they can. In 1962 and 1963 the Supreme Court struck down mandatory, state-sponsored programs of prayer and Bible reading in public schools. The high court has never ruled that truly voluntary, individual prayer is unconstitutional. Individual students are free to recite voluntary prayers or read from religious texts during their free time.

"Voluntary" prayer must really be voluntary and not a ruse to reinstate school-sponsored religious worship. Federal courts have struck down efforts by school officials to set up programs whereby teachers ask a student volunteer to lead the class in prayer. They have also struck down so-called "voluntary" prayer during "optional" student assemblies held as part of the school day.

Statement: We had prayer in schools for 100 years and it never hurt anyone. This is simply not true. Many Americans don't know it, but prayer in public schools was quite contentious in the mid and late 19th century. Roman Catholic objections to Protestant religious practices in the public schools led to civil strife in some cities. (Thirteen people were killed during Protestant-Catholic riots in the Philadelphia area in 1843 after Catholics demanded that their children be excused from mandatory religious practices.) In modern times, members of minority religious groups have complained that government-sponsored worship in schools favors majority faiths. Even many Christians considered forced religion to be distasteful.

Statement: Madalyn Murray O'Hair, an atheist who hates religion, is responsible for having prayer taken out of public schools. Well-known atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair has taken credit for having removed prayer from public school, but she played only a supporting role in the cases. The first school prayer case, 1962's Engel v. Vitale, did not involve O'Hair at all. It was brought by a group of parents on Long Island, N.Y., of various religious and philosophical backgrounds, who challenged a "non-denominational" prayer state education officials had composed for public schoolchildren to recite.

One year later, a Philadelphia-area family named the Schempps challenged mandatory Bible reading in Pennsylvania schools, and their lawsuit eventually reached the Supreme Court. At the same time, O'Hair was challenging a similar practice, as well as the recitation of the Lord's Prayer, in Baltimore's public schools. The Supreme Court consolidated the cases and in 1963 ruled 8-1 that government-sponsored Bible reading or other religious devotions in public schools are unconstitutional.

Statement: The school prayer rulings are hostile to religion. Just the opposite is true. The rulings preserve religious freedom by giving parents the right to decide what religious views and prayersif anytheir children are exposed to. Also, the justices have stated many times that objective study about the Bible and religion's role in history is legal and appropriate in public schools. In the Schempp decision, Justice Tom Clark wrote for the court majority, "[I]t might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment."

Statement: Most Americans support prayer in schools. The majority should get to do what it wants. Public opinion polls on school prayer show different results depending on how the question is worded. While many people say they support "prayer in schools," they have different ideas about what that could mean. In addition, even if a majority did favor requiring prayer in schools, it would not matter. The Bill of Rights protects everyone's beliefs and ensures that majorities do not run roughshod over the rights of minorities.

Statement: Ever since prayer was removed from schools, public school performance has declined and social ills have increased. It is true that some indices of school performance have decreased since 1962, but the problems experienced in our schools are reflections of the problems in American society that are caused by a whole range of socio-economic factors. We cannot blame every societal problem, from the increase in teenage pregnancies to the escalating divorce rate, on a lack of required prayer in schools. Complex problems require complex solutions, something schools across the nation are working on. We should support efforts to make schools safer and healthier but we don't have to go against the U.S. Constitution to do that.

Statement: The Supreme Court has said organized school prayer is OK as long as it is "student initiated," "non-sectarian" and "non-proselytizing" in nature. The Supreme Court has never issued such a ruling. One federal appeals court has approved prayer during public school graduation ceremonies under these conditions, but other federal courts have disagreed with that ruling. Many observers believe the question will eventually end up before the Supreme Court.

Some state legislatures are moving to enact laws permitting public school prayer that is "non-sectarian" and "non-proselytizing." Such legislation is almost certainly unconstitutional because it gives government officials the power to determine which prayers qualify as "non-sectarian" and "non-proselytizing." It should also be noted that many believers consider watered-downed, generic prayers to be deeply offensive.

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