|by Rev. Barry W. Lynn||[Welcome]
The Sad Legacy Of Mandatory School Prayer
Rev. Barry W. Lynn, March 29, 2002 -- Local governments around the nation are being asked to endorse a school prayer amendment currently pending in Congress. The amendment in question, H.J. Res. 81, would alter the U.S. Constitution to permit school-sponsored prayer as well as allow public schools and government to post sectarian symbols and documents.
This amendment is dangerous and misguided. Far from fostering "voluntary prayer," the proposal would urge public schools to set aside time for official worship sessions based on the rule of the majority. Children who are members of minority faiths, or who just don't feel like praying on a given day, would have to get up and leave the room. This is not freedom; it's mob rule on religious matters, and it should be rejected out of hand.
As a minister and a lawyer, I have learned over the years that few social issues spark more confusion and misunderstanding than school prayer. Despite common belief, the Supreme Court has not banned prayer in schools. The high court ruled that school-sponsored, mandatory programs of religious worship in public schools violate the First Amendment. A child's religious upbringing, the court declared, belongs to his or her parents, not school officials.
Children have the right to pray voluntarily in school whenever they like. They may also read the Bible or other religious books during their free time. All over the country, students meet freely in public schools after classes to study the Bible, Jewish scriptures or other religious and non-religious texts. Attendance at these "equal access clubs" is voluntary, and students--not school officials--run them. Clearly, there is a place for voluntary religious activity in public education.
But there should be no place for coercive or state-sponsored religion in public schools. This is especially true in light of the country's stormy history over this issue. In 1844, Roman Catholic parents in Philadelphia asked that their children be excused from mandatory Protestant worship in the public schools. Tempers flared and a three-day riot broke out. Dozens were killed, and several buildings, among them a two Catholic churches and a convent, were burned to the ground. In Ellsworth, Maine, a priest was tarred and feathered in 1854 after he advised Catholic parents to fight a school board regulation requiring the reading of the King James Version of the Bible in public schools.
Tensions over official school prayer and Bible reading also flared in Ohio during a so-called "Bible war" in that state in 1869, as well as in New York City.
Mandatory religious worship in public schools was common in many parts of the country until the late 1950s. One of the catalysts for change was a public high school student in Abington Township, Pa., named Ellery Schempp. Schempp was expelled after he refused to participate in daily recitation of the Lord's Prayer and readings from the King James Version of the Bible in school and filed a lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court's banning of such exercises. The high court ruled, quite appropriately, that public schools have no business trying to direct the religious lives of young people.
These examples of intolerance should give all government officials pause. We don't need to go back to those days. It is simply not the job of the public school system to inculcate children in religion. That task belongs to parents, in consultation with the house of worship of their choosing.
The dangers of mixing religion and government have been brought into sharp relief since Sept. 11. The Taliban government of Afghanistan was a nightmarish theocracy. Schools were completely under the control of religious authorities, and no dissent was tolerated. The United States must reject any proposal that would even begin to open the door to such a repressive system.
Our nation is a religiously diverse society where the government welcomes various religious expressions but officially endorses none. Our policy of separation of church and state has given America more religious freedom than any other country. Government-backed school prayer threatens that freedom. Pennsylvanians should demand that their local governments reject resolutions endorsing mandatory prayer and instead stand proudly with the First Amendment our Founding Fathers gave us.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C. Americans United can be reached at www.au.org or (202) 466-3234.