July 24, 1999
FEDERAL COURT APPROVES PRAYER IN
A U.S. Court of Appeals, one step down from the
Supreme Court, affirmed last week the right of students to pray ''aloud in a
classroom, over the public address system, or as part of a program in school
related assemblies and at sporting events, or at a graduation ceremony.''
It is an astonishing ruling, surely the most
important about school prayer since school-sponsored prayer was declared
unconstitutional almost four decades ago.
The court even said, ''`Cleansing' our public
schools of all religious expression... inevitably results in the
`establishment of disbelief - atheism - as the State's religion. Since the
Constitution requires neutrality, it cannot be the case that government may
prefer disbelief over religion.''
The decision does define some limits. Only
students can initiate the prayer not teachers or administrators. The
original 1962 Supreme Court decision declared that a school board may not
constitutionally write and require students to recite a prayer. When
the state commands religious speech, it violates the First Amendment's
prohibition of ''an establishment of religion.''
However, the First Amendment also says Congress
can make no law ''prohibiting the free exercise'' of religion. Therefore,
the Supreme Court has also ruled that students have a right to organize
Bible studies using school facilities, as does any other extracurricular
group. There are at least 10,000 student-initiated Bible studies or prayer
groups in public high schools.
In between the extremes of government mandated
prayer and private student prayer is a gray area the right of
students to initiate prayer at events that are mandatory for other students
such as a graduation ceremony.
Alabama's Legislature passed a law in 1993 which
permitted ''non-sectarian, non-
proselytizing student-initiated voluntary prayer, invocation and/or
benedictions'' during ''compulsory or non-compulsory school-rated student
assemblies'' or other events.
The Alabama law, publicly supported by former
Governor Fob James, was challenged in DeKalb County by a retired vice
principal named Michael Chandler, and his son, Jesse, who were backed by the
ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
They contended that when the State permits
students to speak religiously in situations that are not purely private, the
State lends its imprimatur to the speech, thereby endorsing or advancing
religion in violation of the ''obligation of the public schools to provide a
religiously neutral environment.'' Therefore, they said schools must forbid
all public religious speech in school, including genuinely student-initiated
The court disagreed with the right of the school
to censor student speech if it is religious: ''The suppression of
student-initiated religious speech is neither necessary to do, nor does it
achieve constitutional neutrality towards religion.'' Indeed, it
demonstrates ''hostility toward religion.''
''The prohibition of all religious speech in our
public schools implies, therefore, an unconstitutional DISAPPROVAL of
religion...Permitting students to speak religiously signifies neither state
approval nor disapproval of that speech. The speech is not the State's -
either by attribution or by adoption,'' said the 11th Circuit Court of
It cited ''unbroken history of official
acknowledgment by all three branches of government of the role of religion
in American life from at least 1789.'' There's a law which put this
national motto on our currency: ''In God we Trust'' and the phrase ''one
nation under God'' which is part of the Pledge of Allegiance recited by
millions of school children daily. Congress opens with a prayer and the
Supreme Court hears arguments in a chamber decorated with a depiction of
Moses and he Ten Commandments. The President proclaims a ''National Day of
Prayer'' each year.
The decision applies only to Alabama, since it
was based on that state's law. However, the court decision will surely
inspire similar laws in other states to permit prayer in school, as long as
it is initiated by students, and not by the school administration or
One footnote of the case argues that the
''Constitution probably does not require'' a ''wall of separation between
church and state,'' a phrase lifted from a letter by Thomas Jefferson, ''who
was neither present when the First Amendment was passed nor consulted about
its language.'' Chief Justice William Rhenquist is quoted as
acknowledging with ''embarrassing candor" that the ''wall'' is merely a
''blurred, indistinct and variable barrier,'' which ''is not wholly
accurate'' and can only be dimly perceived.''
What a refreshing decision! Credit must be given
to Jay Sekulow of the Christian ACLJ (American Center for Law and Justice)
for making a better case than the ACLU.
Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.