A needed law on school prayer

May 25, 1999|By Ray Jenkins

THE LATEST spate of school violence predictably generated renewed outcries from intractable traditionalists who maintain that this social pathology started nearly 40 years ago when the Supreme Court restricted religious exercises in the public schools. Once more, these moral mandarins are clamoring to rewrite the Constitution's First Amendment to permit these practices.

Few Supreme Court decisions produced such enduring controversy as that rendered in 1962 in the case of Engel vs. Vitale as the school-prayer case is officially known, so a review of how that decision came about, and what it led to, is in order.

As the decade of the 1960s began, most public schools in the country opened with some sort of obligatory religious exercise, usually reflecting the predominant faith of the area served. In my small-town school, for example, we simply recited the Lord's Prayer, and never once did it cross my mind that my three Jewish classmates might have been at least uncomfortable as they dutifully took part in a daily Christian ritual.

In New York, where there was far too much religious diversity to permit the use of a palpably sectarian prayer, school authorities came up with their own generic prayer that read:

"Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country."

Now, one might ask, who could object to this? Well, for starters, an atheist might object. Or Buddhists or Hindus. For that matter, even thoughtful people of the traditional American faiths might object on the ground that mandated incantation of a few innocuous words amounted to rote religiosity, which diminished rather than enhanced authentic prayer.

In any case, the Supreme Court declared that if the First Amendment means anything, it means that government functionaries may not compose an official prayer and circulate it among the public schools with instructions that it be recited by pupils.

Despite this relatively narrow holding, newspapers of the day reported the decision under the shocking headline, "Supreme Court Bans Prayer," and the religious war was on. The John Birch Society put up billboards that read: "Impeach Earl Warren" -- never mind that the school-prayer decision was written by the lifelong Southern Baptist Hugo Black. Demagogues like George Wallace seized the moment to accuse the court of "driving God out the schools," which is, when you think of it, a blasphemous statement in that it suggests that mere mortal judges could order the Almighty around at their whim.

Subsequent Supreme Court decisions never really strayed beyond that basic principle, but inevitably, here and there some federal judge would make a silly and unwarranted decision that could be trumpeted by religious traditionalists and their political allies in their tireless campaign to dilute the First Amendment.

But through the years, the court remained steadfast to the principle of separation of church and state, and it is noteworthy that just this past week a federal judge invoked the principle to prohibit a suburban school system in New York from coercing students to engage in a mishmash of religious rituals that incorporated not only elements of traditional faiths, but also the occult and pure superstition as well -- all in the name of recognizing "diversity" in religious practice. And who brought the suit to stop this nonsense? A group of Roman Catholic parents who didn't want their tax dollars used to sow confusion among children.

It is simply absurd to argue that incantation of a few words each day would restrain the handful of deeply troubled children who have been responsible for the tragic outbreaks of violence in the schools. What can have an impact, however, is the totality of the educational experience, passing on the time-tested values of all generations before us.

The late Paul Freund, the eminent constitutional scholar who defended the school prayer decision, liked to tell the story of Willard Gibbs, the great Yale University scientist, standing before a blackboard on which he had just worked out an abstruse equation, tears streaming down his face, and the class staring with the gaze of those who had just seen angels.

Freund said: "Reverence for what we know, humility in the presence of the unknown, awe in the face of the unknowable -- these are the pervasive moods of the spirit that transcend religious differences and make of learning itself a spiritual adventure . . . No court or constitution stands in the way of that kind of moral and spiritual experience. All that stands in the way is our indifference or inadequacy to meet the challenge."

Ray Jenkins was an editorial page editor of the former Evening Sun and is presently a director of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

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