No compromise on school prayer?

June 27, 2000|By Neal Lavon

WASHINGTON -- One way to look at last week's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court banning student-led prayers before football games was that it was a brilliant verdict: both sides were right.

The 6-3 majority, led by Justice John Paul Stevens, saw through what was obviously a backdoor approach by the Santa Fe Independent School District in Texas to maintain a form of school-sponsored prayer.

To get around the legal difficulties, the district invented a system in which students voted in a free election to have an "invocation" before football games, and then subsequently chose a student to deliver it. Ergo, the students are the ones determining what kind of speech will be used and who will use it, not school officials.

The district's charade continued when it further assumed that a student using school facilities with the blessing of school authorities could use prayer (and a particularly Christian type of prayer at that) if desired in the invocation, to "solemnize" the event.

In addition, the district thought that since the actual speech would be employed by a student, not the school, it would be "private," not public, and therefore constitutionally permissible. A federal district court disagreed, and as Justice Stevens wrote, "the simple enactment of this policy, with the purpose and perception of school endorsement of prayer, was a constitutional violation."

But in dissent, Chief Justice William Rehnquist was also right when he said, "the court's opinion bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life."

In essence, he argued that the Supreme Court is "venturing into the realm of prophesy," assuming that the student's invocation before the football game would be automatically religious in nature even though the "solemnization" could take other forms, like messages promoting good sportsmanship and student safety. Why not see what develops, he argued, before assuming the worst about this policy?

What develops from this decision could remove the last bastions of any religious or moral teaching in our public schools.

Within days of the ruling, the American Civil Liberties Union sued neighboring Virginia seeking to overturn its so-called "moment of silence law" before it can take effect in the fall. Under this law, Virginia's attorney general was quoted as saying, prayer could be an "option" for school students during that "moment of silence."

Public prayer and religious activity in public schools play an "important role in many communities," wrote Justice Stevens in his majority opinion, as long as it can "comport with the First Amendment."

In fact, he said that the Constitution did not "impose a prohibition on all religious activity in our public schools" or prevent "any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the school day."

But the same Supreme Court and the rest of our legal system is making it more and more difficult for prayer and religion to find any home whatsoever in the schools.

And as our school system attempts to instruct students to understand and tolerate all the differing values held in 21st-century America, surely it's going to need to touch on the subject of religion and the values it teaches to the different cultural groups living here.

In a school system that is being asked to instill sorely needed moral values to our students, there's no better way than through teaching about religion.

But the courts and activist groups have kept such input on the fringes of public education -- the high school Bible study club can meet on school grounds as long as its subject matter is not taught in class; religious invocations can be used at graduation ceremonies as long as they are "non-sectarian" and do not "proselytize" listeners to adopt a specific religious philosophy.

We shouldn't have state-mandated prayers in our schools but neither, as Mr. Rehnquist said, should we be hostile to all things religious. The courts need to expand that middle ground if we want our kids to have any values or religious knowledge at all.

Neal Lavon covers domestic and foreign issues for the Voice of America in Washington. The views expressed are his own.

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