Prayer Ban's Staying Power

June 17, 1993

Few Supreme Court decisions have generated more controversy than the one issued 30 years ago today, when the court ruled compulsory prayer and Bible-reading in public schools unconstitutional. One way to gauge the depth of the controversy is to note the many subsequent attempts by Congress to pass a constitutional amendment reinstating school prayer. One legal scholar has counted at least 100 such attempts, the bulk of them transparent efforts to score points with voters angered by the decision. That might explain why none of the amendment campaigns has succeeded.

For all its notoriety, the ruling has shown impressive staying power, withstanding congressional assaults as well as the more conservative post-Warren panels. Prayer advocates had hoped the Burger and Rehnquist courts would restore some measure of religion to the schools, but those hopes seem to have been in vain. Last year, for example, the court barred prayers at public school graduations. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy -- a Reagan appointee not expected to cast such votes -- cited precedents harking back to and even dating before the 1963 decision.

Make no mistake, this is an issue that will keep coming before the court in various forms. Yet look for the ban to remain. If recent courts have respected it, then certainly a Supreme Court with one or two Clinton appointees will do likewise.

To this day, the 1963 decision rankles many Americans, especially members of the Religious Right, who trace society's decline to the day prayer was removed from the schools. What nonsense. That the country has slid since the early 1960s is hard to dispute. It would be equally difficult, though, to prove that this decision is somehow to blame. And it would be foolish to overlook more significant factors.

Indeed, many Americans would argue that the nation is better off because of the ruling. As Justice William Brennan wrote in his concurring opinion, "Today the nation is far more heterogeneous religiously, including. . . those who worship according to no version of the Bible and those who worship no God at all. In the face of such profound changes, practices which may have been objectionable to no one in the time of Jefferson and Madison may today be highly offensive to many persons, the deeply devout and the non-believers alike."

Three decades later, the nation is even more heterogeneous, and will become more so in the century ahead. The idea of a regular worship practice for public school students in such a diverse society would defy more than the constitutional ban on the establishment of religion. It would also defy common sense -- a quality that the 1963 decision had to possess in abundance to survive as it has for the past 30 years.

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