Prayer in the Public Schools: Better Think Twice

When I admonished a group of pro-life picketers at a local abortion clinic that their big sign, “PRAY THE ROSARY TO END ABORTION!” was not a good idea, I found myself excoriated as a turncoat pro-lifer who despised the rosary. My only point had been that the place where they were making their display was a busy intersection in a mainline Protestant suburb and that, far from persuading the heavy stream of passers-by to a pro-life point of view, the rosary sign would turn them off.

It has since occurred to me that the “pray the rosary” plea bears some kinship to the nationally resounding “prayer in the public schools” plea. Each calls for an undeniably good thing — prayer. The prayers in each take dead aim at a grave evil — the evil of abortion, the evil of irreligion. But just as my questioning the wisdom of the former was taken as proof of infidelity to the pro-life cause, so raising any question about the latter is often denounced as backsliding on religious freedom, or even as backsliding on God.

Critics of the present school prayer crusade take advantage of the intransigence of some prayer advocates and widely portray them as naive simpletons or, worse, as zealous fundamentalists eager to use the prayer practice, once legally established, as the leading edge for a far broader range of religious interventions. But the intense attack on the crusade will not cause it to go away. It has been with us a long time. In 1964, 146 resolutions for a “school prayer” amendment to the Constitution were introduced in the Congress. The campaign has continued unabated to the present. Joint resolutions for an amendment have been introduced in the new Congress, some with impressive sponsorship. Debate on these has been postponed only temporarily and the summer should see its vigorous resumption. But the more the controversy boils, the more likely there will be serious misunderstandings. The motivations of the (predominantly Evangelical) pro-prayer people have been generally obscured by their opponents and, to an extent, by themselves. Badly distorted in the media, those motivations appear to be three:

The most general sentiment they express centers on the state of our society, its rampant immorality and violence. Since a high percentage of a child’s day is spent in school, and since most children attend public school, the society of tomorrow will be formed by today’s public school children. Our public schools are officially godless, and the predominant result is, inevitably, citizens without a moral compass. If the power and prestige of school boards were devoted expressly to providing for prayer, or at least a formalized opportunity to pray, the godless environment would be officially dispelled, a powerful reminder provided of eternal verities, and a more virtuous society would result.

Second, for many who favor prayer in the public schools, a result, wholly apart from the social value of such prayer, is believed certain to come about. God hears prayers, but today we have chosen to create for our children a massive system of education which shuts Him out. If we were to accord Him recognition by the daily prayer of millions of our children, surely He would be pleased and shower His blessings upon America.

Finally, apart from the power of prayer and any question of its social value is the simple matter of the liberty to pray as part of a school community’s life. The activity of prayer in the public schools had never been regarded as alien to the educational process and was a highly favored accommodation to that liberty until the Supreme Court’s prayer-banning ruling of 1963.

Opponents of a prayer amendment, however, denouncing it as “tinkering with the Constitution,” buy none of this and instead argue first that official prayer is unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court in five major decisions between 1948 and 1994 has held that the Constitution’s clause barring an establishment of religion requires that public schools be pervasively secular. In particular, as to prayer, it has held that government may not call for student recitations of prayer, that it may not prescribe nondenominational prayers for classroom use, or authorize moments of silence for meditation or prayer, albeit on a voluntary basis. In 1992 the Court went on to hold that even inclusion of a nonsectarian invocation and benediction by a rabbi at a public high school graduation violated the Constitution’s requirement of church-state separation.

Opponents of the prayer crusade are thus able to argue that they have already settled the “school prayer” issue. But it is fear of what may happen in the prospective 1995 rematch that now inspires their counter-crusade. And in that campaign they go far beyond doggedly insisting that the Supreme Court has settled the question. They add arguments to the reasoning which informed the Court’s decision.

They contend that there is no need for a prayer amendment. That is, of course, what atheists are saying, but many who deny the need for an amendment are not atheists. They speak, instead, as people who profess to value religion and religious freedom highly. They argue, therefore, that there is really nothing to argue about. Arthur N. Teitelbaum, of the Florida Anti-Defamation League, sums up the point: “There is no law today that requires public school children to leave their religious views or practices at the schoolhouse door. They can say grace before meals, say quiet nondisruptive prayers whenever an opportunity arises and read the Bible between classes, discuss their religious views with other willing students and include religious themes in their writing assignments. They may learn about religion . . .”

“School prayer” opponents argue further that the public schools may impart civic virtue to children without involving religion at all. This, it is said, undercuts the argument that school prayer is necessary to the building of a virtuous society.

Devoted to the subject of “values” in the public schools, an article in The New York Times Magazine (January 8, 1995) favorably described a program of instruction utilized in the public schools of Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, aimed at rendering students “morally mature.” Such a student would be one who “habitually respects human dignity, demonstrates active responsibility for the welfare of others, integrates individual interests and social responsibilities, demonstrates integrity, applies moral principles when making choices and judgments, and seeks peaceful resolution of conflict.” Prayer opponents ask what more could be desired.

Finally, prayer opponents claim that any prayer amendment will inherently call for coercion. If officially prescribed, sponsored, or authorized prayer in the public schools is unconstitutional and completely unnecessary, so, prayer opponents argue, it is also hazardous to the child’s freedom of conscience. Even if official prayer had not been held to violate the Constitution, it is undesirable that states would promote praying in classrooms, whether voluntary or not.

Prayer opponents contend that governmentally composed prayers are unacceptable: how, in our religiously plural society, can a fit-all prayer possibly be devised. If it could be, what about those children not wishing to pray? Catholic public school pupils had, for decades, often been the object of embarrassment and punishment for their refusal to recite verses from the King James Bible or to engage in Protestant prayers. Now we risk causing school children to feel isolated as “oddballs” if they do not pray.

Such, I think, is a reliable statement of the case against school prayer. It lacks, the reader will note, the usual ingredient of poisonous ridicule of prayer proponents and the representing of them, not as citizens holding sincere but differing views, but virtually as the dangerous enemies of society called the “Religious Right.” To the extent that the anti-prayer campaign is succeeding, its reliance on inspiring hatred has been perhaps the chief factor in its success thus far.

Putting the best face on the anti-prayer position, as I think I have, that position is nevertheless deeply flawed. The Supreme Court has indeed ruled out officially stated allowance for prayer. Its decisions have been based in large part on skewed history and on a gradually unfolding attitude scrupulously favoring secularism. Barring a dramatic change in that attitude or in the membership of the Court, we are struck with its absolutist teaching on the Establishment Clause unless we amend the Constitution.

But to say that our public schools today are hospitable to religion and to suggest that they are well-disposed to impart civic virtue is utterly misleading. A pervasive secularism is manifest in the schools’ materialist and corrupting sex education programs, the rampant sanitizing from curricula and campus life any expression favorable to theistic religion, and the creating of such programs as Values Clarification, Magic Circle, Quest, and various New Age projects.

As to the imparting of civic virtue, while we may wish the best to programs such as Mt. Lebanon’s, we must realize that lists of “moral values” will be filtered through the teacher’s often subjective definition of value. The teaching of virtue needs teachers who understand morality objectively. Hence we are left with the important question of what values individual public school teachers today may happen to hold. Many, undeniably, still hold the values of the Judaeo-Christian tradition but are disable to quote the Bible or to invoke prayer in counseling students. But all too many teachers express the values of the materialistic culture.

The prayer opponents are correct in pointing to problems of possible coercion where prayer is officially installed. But left out of the prayer opponents’ argument are what rights, if any, may attach to the interest of the individual child who is part of a majority desiring religious observance. The Supreme Court decisions have uniformly ignored that interest by their exclusive focus on the interests of protesting dissenting minorities. To say that a child in public school today is “free to pray” because, during the school day, he may covertly engage in prayer is nonsense. The official banning of school-sponsored prayer conveys the powerful teaching not only that God is irrelevant to one’s life but even that He is disfavored. The “oddball” argument cuts two ways. In such an atmosphere, it is the child who ventures to acknowledge Him that risks being treated as an oddball. If a child is trapped, by legal compulsion, in an environment alien to religious observance, he will tend to conform to that environment. Finally, there is no need for concern over state-composed prayers; no one in the prayer movement today is proposing them.

To criticize the case against school prayer is not necessarily, however, to state a case for a school prayer amendment. For parents to whom the religious education of their children is an inescapable duty, the civil liberty to obtain such education is a necessity. But that liberty involves much besides liberty to pray. It involves the learning of religion and the manifestations of religion in practice. A comprehensive religious education can obviously be enjoyed only in a religious school. Because the public schools must be open to people of all faiths and of no faith, they are at best ill suited to the full religious development of the child. Hence to the commitedly religious parent, the public school will necessarily involve serious compromise, even where family life is supportive of religion and parents have time to foster it. For many religious parents the geographical or economic unavailability of a religious school necessitates that compromise. Yet enrollment of their children in a public school should not mean such a compromise as may be actually harmful to the faith and morality which they hope their children may embrace.

Public policy must have two objectives: first, to render the public school environment “religion friendly”; second, to rid it of programs which involve the imposition of secular values. A school prayer amendment would help in achieving the first objective. But it has shortcomings. A constitutional amendment authorizing prayer would, as a practical matter, have to be limited to a reasonable period of officially designated silence, as a time in which students could pray. In most public schools there is a mix of mainline Protestants, conservative Evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, and people of no religion. To permit vocal prayer in a single classroom would produce cacophony and the need for unwonted surveillance. Ta allow different groups to go to different locations to pray would appear to be cumbersome and would give rise to cries of divisiveness. So what would be produced by a “prayer” amendment would simply be: the right of every student enrolled in a public school to be afforded by the school a period of silence during which he or she may engage in prayer.

Allowing a few moments of prayer will not, except miraculously, counter the pervasive secularism of the environment of most contemporary public schools. Indeed, the slender prayer option may provide a false assurance to parents that the environment is now friendly to religion. Allowance of this option will not alter the curriculum, the textbooks, or the influence of teachers.

The efficacy of the allowance of prayer will also depend in part on the existing attitudes and mentality of public school students not all of whom, at least at the high school level, may be the well-disposed youngsters some may envision them to be. For three decades the schools have been officially godless. Bad music, bad movies, promiscuous sex, the vulgarization of speech, and the heavy dependence on television have given rise to student populations which may not respectfully greet the opportunity for children to pray. And while we may idealize parental rights, we must realize that too many parents today (as James Dobson and William Bennett ceaselessly point out) are part of the national moral problem.

Much more than a prayer amendment is needed to render the public schools “religion friendly.” In all too many schools nondisruptive expression by students is censored because of religious content and student clubs banned solely because they are formed for discussion of religious ideas or for prayer. Unrecognized in many school districts is the federal Equal Access Act by which students may meet for student-led prayer and religious study before or after class if any other student club for discussion purposes is permitted.

A period of silent prayer, while undoubtedly of great symbolic value, will not resolve our twofold problem of religious liberty in public education. Since we are faced with a Supreme Court which will predictably continue to follow its own unfortunate interpretations of the Establishment Clause, the first problem might be addressed by a constitutional amendment which would read as follows:

Neither the United States nor any state shall deny educational benefits to any person on account of that person’s religious profession nor abridge the right of students enrolled in a public school to engage in prayer or other religious expression in circumstances in which they would be permitted to engage in other forms of speech or expression.

As to the second objective in aid of creating religious freedom in the public schools, not only in the area of sex education, but notably in required reading and counseling programs, values offensive to traditional moral values or familial privacy have been insisted upon by many school boards and administrators. Parents responsibly protesting these arrogant impositions (often introduced without notice to parents) have found themselves attacked as “book burners” or “fundamentalists.” No constitutional amendment should be needed to address this problem. The First Amendment affords abundant protection to parents against unreasonable exercises of state power, but parents should not be bashful over asserting First Amendment rights. Nor should they hesitate to involve themselves in school board elections and other aspects of the political process.

If the drive for a prayer amendment fails, it will nevertheless have borne fruit if it will have caused us all to contemplate the much broader and more significant question: How shall we achieve religious liberty in the educating of America’s children?


  • William Bentley Ball

    William Bentley Ball was one of the nation's foremost Catholic constitutional lawyers. He died in 2000.

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