Religion Is a Private Matter

June 26, 1992

The Supreme Court was absolutely correct to rule that a state-sponsored prayer in a public school graduation ceremony is a violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The history of the writing and adoption of the amendment 200 years ago and the unwavering precedents of the Supreme Court since it began applying the amendment to state and local governments 45 years ago make that as clear as -- well, as a revelation.

For over two decades the Supreme Court has applied a simple three-part test in determining whether state action breached the wall separating church and state erected by the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof. . . ." The test is, does the action (1) serve a purely secular purpose, (2) neither advance nor inhibit religion and (3) avoid excessive government entanglement with religion? If it fails to do even one of those things, it is unconstitutional.

In the case involved, a Rhode Island public junior high school principal, with the approval of the school committee and superintendent, invited a rabbi to deliver a prayer at graduation exercises which students were expected and pressured if not legally required to attend. The official also gave the rabbi guidelines on what the prayer could and could not say. The prayer gave God thanks for providing "liberty" and "the political processes of America" (including "its court system"). This prayer in this setting arranged this way violated all three parts of the test.

Some critics of this and similar decisions have called the court anti-religion. That is not true. This decision and its precedents are profoundly pro-religion. As Justice Anthony Kennedy said in the opinion of the court Wednesday, "The First Amendment's Religion Clauses mean that religious beliefs and religious expression are too precious to be either proscribed or prescribed by the state."

Justice Antonin Scalia in dissent complained that the Kennedy opinion was "bereft of any reference to history." In fact Justice Kennedy quotes James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights, on the religion issue, and Justice David Souter wrote extensively about the origins of the First Amendment in his concurring opinion.

More than history is involved here (and even more than just this nation). As Justice Kennedy observed, "The lessons of the First Amendment are as urgent in the modern world as in the 18th century when it was written. One timeless lesson is that if citizens are subjected to state-sponsored religious exercises, the State disavows its own duty to guard and respect that sphere of inviolable conscience and belief which is the mark of a free people. To compromise that principle today would be to deny our own tradition and forfeit our standing to urge others to secure the protections of that tradition for themselves." Amen.

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