Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

School Prayer Isn't the Solution

James Skillen


June 9, 1998

Don't mourn the defeat of the Religious Liberty Amendment in the House of Representatives last week. Many religious groups backed it as the first chance in a long time to restore faith to its proper place in American life. But this isn't the right constitutional remedy.

The proposal crafted by Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK) is designed to reverse the tendency of judges and other government officials to protect only religion that is confined to the private sphere. The goal is to clarify and confirm the Founders' intention that both the free exercise clause and the no-establishment clause of the First Amendment will protect the expression of religion in all of life.

The language Rep. Istook proposes has many good features. It rightly emphasizes that government may not establish religion and must not require anyone to take part in religious activities. It overturns the privatization of faith by requiring government to stop discriminating against religious persons and groups when it distributes public funds. And it protects the right of people to carry their religious convictions into the public square. Here's the point: government should not establish secularism by pushing religion out of public life.

All of this is right on target. Unfortunately, the backers of the amendment are so mesmerized by the hope of getting prayer back into the schools that their proposal perpetuates an unresolvable dilemma.

The amendment declares the right of the people to express their faith in public places, including schools. Yet it forbids public schools to write prayers or to force students to pray. So what do its backers have in mind? They want students to organize the prayers and to lead their classmates in praying. But doesn't this violate the rule about not requiring prayer? Not so, says Rep. Istook. Just because a school allows a student to stand in front of the room leading the class in prayer doesn't mean anyone is compelled to pray. It's no different than the Pledge of Allegiance, he says, where students who object can refuse to take part. But surely the required ritual of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is not a good example of a student-initiated voluntary exercise!

Moreover, given the diversity of student beliefs, there is no way for any prayer to be acceptable to all students. A prayer with definite content will offend those whose faith is different; a prayer that tries to include all will offend every person of deep faith.

Proponents of school prayer are so determined to get religion back into the classroom that they sweep away such concerns about coercion, respect for less-popular beliefs, and the truth content of the prayers. Unfortunately, when a unitary public school system is the rule, this kind of ersatz school-prayer religion is the only alternative to a religion-less school.

But there is no reason to remain restricted to these equally unacceptable choices. The problem for religious freedom and fairness is the unitary government-run school system itself. The solution is a pluralistic public system in which government funds a diversity of schools, each of them standing for something, so that each family can choose a school that actually embodies its convictions.

So recall this: equal treatment of religious groups is one of the main principles of the Religious Liberty Amendment itself. Let's push for equal treatment and abandon the dream that God will bless our nation anew if we can just somehow, anyhow, sneak some kind of organized prayer back into the public schools. It's past time to reverse the privatization of religion. But this amendment doesn't get it right. Let's amend the amendment before pushing it forward again.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Director of Social Policy Studies
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”