Piety or Blasphemy (Vol. 49, Issue 6)
The most cherished of our freedoms are freedom of speech and religion. The Bill of Rights mandates the separation of Church and State to assure the rights of every religious minority to worship in freedom without government interference.
In June of 1963, the Supreme Court ruled, based on the establishment clause of the first amendment, that a state cannot constitutionally hold religious exercises, such as prayers, in public school classrooms.
President Reagan, a longtime proponent of school prayer supports a constitutional amendment that would supercede the court's ban to reinstitute prayer, a “basic right” and “long cherished tradition” in the schools. If passed, the amendment would forbid the government from “mandating” the use of any particular prayer in public schools. Prayers read in class would be chosen by the students, or perhaps by their parents.
The amendment leaves us with questions. Whose prayer will be recited? What about a child who wants his own prayer or no prayer at all? Senator Arlen Specter further noted, “with children of tender years, 5, 6, 7, we have to avoid the subtleties of a religion not of their own choosing, or any religion at all. We know that the government is not going to write the prayer, but who is?" The question, left unanswered, would encourage classroom disputes about the text of the prayer, consequently, the teacher would inevitably determine the prayer of the day, sacrificing the constitutional separation between Church and State to restore tranquility in the classroom. Such an amendment would disturb the religious neutrality that is a cornerstone of American liberty.
President Reagan's answers are not reassuring. He stipulates that officials may not compose the words of any prayer to be said in the public schools. However, that wouldn't forbid.teachets from choosing among prayers. Excusing those children with the courage to dissent won't spare them from feeling the opprobrium of peers or teachers. Our private religious choices differ, and we affirm divergent and even conflicting faiths. It is not the role of government to arbitrate those differences.
At a recent rally for his reelection, Mr. Reagan, who does not go to church called for “the God who loves us” to be welcomed back into our children’s classrooms, after having been “expelled by the Supreme Court.” For Fundamentalist Christians, the most ardent supporters of the amendment, school prayers have become a rampart for defending what they “see as an attack on religion itself. To reject the amendment they feel, is to reject God.
They are all ignoring the salient fact that there is absolutely no restriction on school prayers; the prohibition rests only on organized school prayer. A child is free to pray today, whether during his lunch hour, or prior to an exam, or before he comes up to bat, but it is not the role of our Public Schools to induce children to pray in ways which do not accord with their own or their family's religious convictions. Religion is the proper province of the family and church, synagogue, or other religious institution.
Supporters of the amendment say that they intend only to allow voluntary prayer in the schools. The Constitution allows that now. The Supreme Court never ruled out school prayers except those mandated by government authorities.
So why do senators waste their time pushing for a constitutional amendment that restates present law? Politics, of course, President Reagan has been under pressure from his party's conservatives to take the lead in their crusades for school prayer, and against busing and abortion. The President is mining political gold in advocating a prayer amendment; it is so much easier to sell religious issue than it is to explain the precarious federal deficit. “What is happening,” Professor Dellinger said the other day, “is the use of the Lord's name in partisan politics. The ancient word for that I believe, was blasphemy.”