Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
May 9, 2008
The question of prayer in public schools is one controversy that seems never to go away. In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a generic prayer written by New York authorities for use in public-school classrooms represented an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The following year, the Court held that Bible readings and the praying of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools were also unconstitutional.
Then in 1985, the Court judged unconstitutional an Alabama moment of silence for prayer or meditation at the start of school days. But this decision left unresolved several questions surrounding the issue of moments of silence in public schools. The Supreme Court looked at the history of the Alabama legislature’s enactment of its provision and concluded that the historical record revealed an underlying purpose to encourage silent prayer.
That ruling left open the following question: is it constitutional for a state to provide for a moment of silence for prayer or reflection at the start of school days if in doing so the state signals that its motivation is secular, not religious? The Supreme Court has never ruled on that question. Meanwhile, 23 states permit teachers to lead their students in a moment of silence and 13 require them to do so.
This issue has now been raised in an Illinois court case that may one day end up in the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2007, the Illinois legislature passed a law that changed Illinois law from permitting teachers to begin school days with a moment of silence to one requiring them to do so. The act reads, “In each public school classroom the teacher shall observe a brief period of silence with the participation of all the pupils therein assembled at the opening of every school day.”
With the support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ALCU), Rob Sherman, an activist on behalf of atheism, and his high school daughter challenged this law. Late last year, federal district court judge, Robert W. Gettleman, issued an injunction suspending the implementation of the law on the basis of alleged vagueness and likely First Amendment establishment-clause violations in the law. A full trial and final decision are pending.
This case illustrates the extent to which a mind-set of strict church-state separation is still a powerful force in our nation. No one reading the Illinois law can argue that it is promoting Christianity or even encouraging religion in a more general sense. The title of the law—“The Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act”—and the words of the law itself favor neither prayer nor reflection over the other. And the students who choose to pray silently can pray in their own ways with their own words.
Yet Judge Gettleman ruled that “the statute has a potential chilling effect on First Amendment rights.” It is as though religion were some toxic substance and that even the possibility that trace amounts might touch a student must be eliminated. But this is to discriminate against religion.
We can debate the value of having a moment of silence at the start of school days. Some argue that it is such a minimal recognition of religion that it is not worth the effort to institute it. There are more important issues to deal with, according to this argument.
Nevertheless, I believe that instituting moments of silence for prayer or reflection at the beginning of school days is worth the struggle. Such moments represent a recognition by schools, even if only a minimal recognition, that faith and prayer are important to many families and to many in the community. An official authorization of a moment of silence does not unjustly impose anyone’s religious beliefs or practices on anyone else. The U.S. Constitution should not be interpreted to say that all religion should be stripped from the public life of the nation. And this is particularly true when all beliefs and practices, whether religious or secular, are being treated equally under the law.
—Stephen V. Monsma, Research Fellow
The Henry Institute, Calvin College
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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.”