Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Prayer In Public Schools: Who May And Who May Not Pray

There is a poem history teachers use to help students remember what happened to the wives of Henry VIII:

            "Divorced, Beheaded, Died;

            Divorced, Beheaded, Survived."

            Henry obviously had issues when it came to marriage and family life.  In the 1500's there was a great struggle for power between the King and the Pope.  Catherine of Aragon was married to Henry's brother, Arthur.  When Arthur died, Henry wanted to marry Catherine but Catholic law forbade a man to marry his dead brother's wife.  Pope Clement VII refused the annulment and the rest is history.  Henry removed the authority of the Pope from England which paved the way for the establishment of the Church of England.

            Roger Williams fled to America to escape religious persecution in England.  He established the colony of Rhode Island as a haven for religious minorities.  Many of the early American settlers came to America to escape the abusiveness of a church that had become more about government and power than the actual kingdom of God. Our founding fathers had this history fresh in their minds when they wrote our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.

            The very first amendment was constructed to prevent a repeat of what had happened in Europe.  "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."  In the context of the times, this meant that our founding fathers did not want the government meddling in the affairs of the church.  They didn't want a state-sanctioned church.  This portion of the first amendment is referred to as the 'establishment clause'.

            But the original authors of our Constitution did not stop there.  They added what has become known as the 'free exercise' clause.  Not only was the government not to make any laws about establishing a state religion but they were "not to deny the free exercise thereof". Government was not to interfere with the right of its citizens to practice their religion so long as these practices were not disruptive to society or in violation of the moral laws of the nation.

            Men who are politically persuaded are often driven to absurdity in order to prove a point or defend a political doctrine.  In Engel v. Vitale, 1962, the Supreme Court decided that it was irreparably harmful for our children to recite a non-denominational prayer composed by the New York State Board of Regents, "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country."  The board was plugging the prayer because they were much concerned about the recent decline in morality and ethical behavior of students within the system. 

            The Supreme Court voted the prayer down by a vote of 5-2.  Justice Hugo Black represented the majority opinion when he wrote:  "In this country, it is no part of the business of the government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government."  Black also made reference to Thomas Jefferson's opinion on the matter and many assume the constitution is the source of his opinion.

            In October of 1801 a group of Baptists from Danbury, Connecticut wrote a letter of concern to President Jefferson.  These Danbury Baptists found themselves a minority group in Connecticut and they were fearful that the Congregational Church would be made a state church and their right to worship freely would be violated.  Jefferson answered their concerns in a letter by declaring that as long as he were president there would be no state sponsored church at the federal level.  The phrase "separation of church and state" was lifted from his letter, not from the Constitution. 

            The minority opinion of Engel v. Vitale was expressed by Justice Potter Stewart: "I think the Court has misapplied a great constitutional principle. I cannot see how an "official religion" is established by letting those who want to say a prayer say it. On the contrary, I think that to deny the wish of these school children to join in reciting this prayer is to deny them the opportunity of sharing in the spiritual heritage of our Nation."  

            Proponents would argue that prayer in public schools does not amount to government establishing a religion.  If so, some blatant inconsistencies must be addressed.  Is the U.S. government trying to establish religion when scripture verses are chiseled on thousands of public buildings?  Is the government trying to establish religion when chaplains are employed in the armed services and in the U.S. Congress?  Is the government trying to establish religion when it promotes the celebration of religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter? 

            There is a great difference between "freedom of religion" (worship as you choose) and "freedom from religion" (government imposed religion).  Proponents of prayer in public schools want a government that respects the religious nature and heritage of our Christian youth.  The U.S. government has never sponsored any one denomination or specific belief system.  But the founding fathers were unashamedly and unabashedly Christian in their beliefs.  Of the first 108 universities founded in America, 106 were distinctly Christian, including the first university in America, Harvard.  The original Harvard Student Handbook of 1636 addressed the study of scriptures by Harvard students:  "Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ, which is eternal life, and therefore to lay Jesus Christ as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning."  The foundation for this idea was found in John 17:3 "And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent."

            There is a more recent inconsistency that must be addressed.  Ten parents joined the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) in the lawsuit against the New Hyde Park Board of Education to eliminate prayer from public schools.  The ACLU fought well and was successful in limiting prayerful expression in public schools. 

            Carver Elementary school in San Diego is possibly going to allow Muslim students to pray in school.  Can you hear the theme song of "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" in your  mind as the ACLU rides their black steeds into town to put down the praying Muslims?  Not so.  Kevin Keenan, a spokesperson for the ACLU defends the practice of Muslims praying in public schools:  "Performing these prayers is widely -- if not universally -- recognized as one of the five essential 'pillar' of Islam.  One of these prayer times will always fall during the school day at Carver when students are required by law to be in school."

            Is prayer for Christians not also recognized as essential to Christianity?  The same ACLU that has been fighting freedom of religion in public schools is 'fine and dandy' when it comes to Muslims praying in public schools.  So, let's be honest.  The real fight here is not about prayer in public schools, the real fight is about suppressing Christianity in America.

Kevin Probst - Teaches History, Government and Apologetics at the high school level in Columbus Georgia.

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