Freethought Almanac

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July 12: Government-sponsored Prayer

Public School Prayer (1995)

It was on this date, July 12, 1995, that President Bill Clinton, in a talk to students at James Madison High School in Vienna, VA, advocated school-prayer guidelines. He said in part, “nothing in the First Amendment converts our public schools to religion-free zones or requires all religious expression to be left at the schoolhouse door.”

In response, that August, the Department of Education issued a memo to public school superintendents concerning religious freedom. The Department advised that students cannot engage in religiously motivated harassment; that no student can be coerced into participating in any religious activity; that teachers and administrators cannot discourage or promote religious, or anti-religious, activity; that schools can teach about religion, but may not provide religious instruction; and that schools can teach about common civic values, but they must be neutral with respect to religion.

Not satisfied with neutrality, three months later (November 1995) Oklahoma Republican Congressman Ernest Istook, supported by the Christian Coalition and others, introduced a Constitutional amendment allowing state-sponsored prayer in public schools. Istook’s attack on the First Amendment died on 4 June 1998. But religion never gives up: a back-door attempt to inject prayer into public school had already made the rounds a decade earlier via a “moment of silence” proposal being proffered. An Alabama law authorized teachers to set aside one minute at the start of each day for a moment of “meditation or voluntary prayer.” In 1982, a parent of three public school children objected and took the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1985, in a majority opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens, the Court ruled, 6-3 (Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38 (1985)), that the Alabama law violated the First Amendment, in that the purpose of the “moment of silence” was clearly to endorse religion, and that the enactment of the statute was not motivated by any clearly secular purpose. Strangely, in dissent, Chief Justice Burger cited the supposed secular purpose of including “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance!

It must be pointed out that many conservative Christians, and others, promote prayer in public schools because they believe that if students start the day with a prayer, then they will behave in a more “spiritual” (or ethical) manner the rest of the day. But this assertion is unproven in the positive and disproven in the negative: for example, U.S. prison populations are over 98% believers—and most of them are Christian. Furthermore, as elucidated in Wallace v. Jaffree, many schools have entire class periods dedicated to silent study, which can equally be used for silent prayer or meditation; “moment of silence” laws are unnecessary because a student can pray or meditate on his/her own without an official moment; and, as Rev. Barry W. Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State says, "Students were already allowed to pray, meditate, or reflect under the statute before it was amended. The addition of the word ‘pray’ where it wasn’t needed clearly shows that legislators intended to promote religion, and that’s not their job."

The obvious observation is that the proposed remedy must address some actual problem: if the “problem” is that students are not praying enough, that is, they are not talking to an invisible, supernatural being who can grant their wishes, are the churches doing so poorly that they have to ask the state to coerce a captive audience? If the problem is not enough time for silent reflection during the day, it would seem not to affect just children—so why is a “moment of silence” not also mandated at work?

Skeptical wags have suggested, considering the state of U.S. education compared with other western countries—by 2012 statistics, 29th in mathematics and 22nd in science—that, instead of a moment of silence, the U.S. needs a moment of science!

Originally published July 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

One comment on “July 12: Government-sponsored Prayer”

  1. Excellent. I must tell you, I worked in the medical dept. of a county prison in PA for four years. The inmates ALL get religion because it looks good on their record. They have a better chance for parole. They take jobs for the same reason. I was thinking though, in relation to the point of the article, isn't it interesting "getting religion" is a consideration for parole?

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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