Pundits and editorial writers pounced on Newt Gingrich when he suggested, soon after the election, that Republicans in the House would take up a school prayer amendment after acting on the agenda outlined in the Contract With America. Most insisted the proposal was a major political blunder. But then most of them had previously decried the contract itself as a major political blunder, sure to lose votes for Republican candidates. The school prayer amendment is an excellent idea, but an ambitious version of the proposal, one that tries to remove most or all current restrictions on state legislatures and local school boards, might not secure adoption by the required three-quarters of the states. Even seemingly popular general proposals can founder on emotional objections to particular details, as the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment ought to remind us.
Almost any version of a prayer amendment will trigger an extensive debate, and such a debate will be helpful for Republicans and healthy for the nation. The prayer amendment is something that is well overdue. In order to prosper into the next century we, as Americans, need to go back to the fundamentals of our moral beliefs. The placement of a time where students are allowed to perform a voluntary silent prayer can help us reinstate ethics and pure ideals back into our children. Without prayer in school the American education system will continue its downward spiral into a black hole of corruption and greed.
Public opinion polls over the last thirty years have continually shown that roughly three-quarters of the electorate already supports prayer in the schools (Dyckman). President Clinton seemed to acknowledge this when he expressed openness to a prayer amendment soon after Gingrich’s statement (Van Biema). But the Democratic Party is deeply committed, both financially and culturally, to constituents demanding perpetual allegiance to their own version of “civil liberties.” The White House staff demonstrated as much when it hastily disclaimed the president’s statement on this issue. It is not a bad thing for the majority party to align itself with the overwhelming majority of voters, and to leave Democrats to do the bidding of their fearful, angry little pressure groups (Garvey). However, without both parties agreeing to push for this, it will be more than difficult to see it through.
Prayer in school needs to be an issue that becomes less about parties and more about the views of the each Congresspersons constituents. The importance of the school prayer issue goes beyond both prayer and the schools, for there is no direct mention in the Constitution of either. Ever since its 1962 ruling against prayer and Bible-reading in public schools, the Supreme Court has used the supposed menace of religion in public schools as a doctrinal and political launching pad for broader attacks on religious references or accommodations to religion in public life (Kaminer). The Court is wrong in this aspect, and its decisions over the past thirty-five years have been misleading and troublesome. The court progressed from banning prayers in schools to banning the display of the Ten Commandments in public school hallways (Blummer).
It held that state aid to parochial schools violates the Constitution. It ruled that the display of a Christmas tree in a public building was also a constitutional violation. Some justices have even argued that laws restricting access to abortion manifest an improper “establishment of religion” by imposing a religious opinion on legislative policy reasoning. In other words, that the Constitution requires religious opinion not only to be hidden, but also to be disenfranchised (Garvey). Unfortunately these are some of the mild decisions made by our federal court system. It is understandable to see why the Ten Commandments should not be posted in a public school or why parochial schools should not receive federal funding.
Nonetheless, the court has not dared to carry this logic through to its full conclusion. The court unaccountably ruled in the mid-1980s that prayers at the opening of state legislative sessions were constitutionally permissible, even when delivered by sectarian chaplains remunerated with taxpayer funds. Even liberal justices have acknowledged that the national motto, “In God We Trust,” may remain on American money, and that the reference to “one nation under God” may remain in the Pledge of Allegiance. Justice Brennan, in a widely cited opinion, argued that such concessions to tradition were constitutionally acceptable because they were merely “ceremonial” and “solemnizing” gestures no longer conveying a serious “religious” connotation. So who draws the line between ritual and religious? The Court has been most insistent, however, about suppressing concessions to religion in public schools.
In 1985 it ruled that even a state-mandated “moment of silence” at the beginning of the school day was an affront to the Constitution, because some students might take it as encouragement to use that moment for silent prayer (Garvey). This was a severe blow to the school prayer side because it disallowed the most important part of our fight, a standard time set aside to pray. The Court continued and in a series of decisions between them and the lower courts almost all religious freedom was stripped in schools. In 1992, the Court held that a brief convocation statement at a high school graduation ceremony was unconstitutional because it mentioned the word “God.”(Gorov) Just the mentioning of the word has sent parents screaming to their administration. Have we really become so paranoid that just the mention of the word God makes us think our children are being brainwashed? Unfortunately, lower courts have enforced the spirit of such rulings with a vengeance.
Even student-initiated prayer and Bible-study sessions outside regular classrooms (given only for those who desire them) have been disallowed by lower court judges, who ruled that such activities suggest impermissible endorsement of prayer by public authorities if held on school grounds (Gorov). One lower court even held that a public school was acting in accord with the Constitution in preventing a teacher from displaying a copy of the Bible on his desk and including a book of Bible stories among the books made available for free-time reading by students in his class (Gorov). In a case now on appeal to the Supreme Court, lower courts have held that the University of Virginia acted properly in denying financial subsidies to a student Christian magazine, while allowing subsidies to a range of other student publications (including publications by Jewish and Islamic student groups): aid to a Christian publication might appear to be government endorsement of religion, and thus in violation of the First Amendment (Blummer). The most common rationale for such religio-phobic rulings is unconvincing but nonetheless revealing. Children and adolescents, it is said, are particularly vulnerable to psychological coerci …