The law regarding prayer in public schools is settled: Public schools can’t promote prayer or religious worship. It is simply not their job. The Supreme Court first made this clear nearly 50 years ago in 1962’s Engel v. Vitale ruling.
Apparently, half a century of settled law means little to some people, because there remains an active movement to “restore” prayer to public schools in some parts of the country. We’re seeing a push like this in Florida, where the legislature is trying to pass a bill that would promote official prayer in public schools.
If passed, SB-98 will allow school boards to adopt policies that permit prayer or “inspirational messages” at “noncompulsory” school events, including graduations and other assemblies. Students would deliver the prayers and/or messages, and the bill states that school officials aren’t supposed to interfere or try to influence their content.
There are several problems with this approach. Number one, what exactly is an “inspirational message”? This could include a sermon or other type of proselytizing harangue during a school event that is attended by people of many faiths and no faith. Why would a public school want to foster this?
Secondly, there is no such thing as “noncompulsory” school event. Sure, students aren’t technically required to attend graduation or other after-hours school events, but many young people want to enjoy these things with their peers and consider them mandatory by default. They should not have to endure religious worship as the price of admission. It’s rude.
Finally, the bill is patently unconstitutional. The Supreme Court struck down allegedly “student-initiated” prayers before public school football games in a 2000 case called Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.
If this bill passes, there will be litigation. Florida, like a lot of states, is broke and is slashing public services. Does the state really want to squander precious tax funds defending a sure loser like this legislation?
Just to be clear, no one is opposed to personal prayer in school if it’s voluntarily chosen, non-disruptive and not sponsored by the school. What we oppose is prayer mingled with any form of coercion, force or compulsion.
As my friend Don Byrd at the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty noted recently, “We are not saying we don’t want prayer. We are saying we don't want school officials organizing such an essential, personal religious exercise. We don’t want students to have to choose between participating in a prayer and attending important school events with their peers…. We are saying it is an intensely sacred expression of communication between an individual and their God, and that government should stay out of the business of promoting it.”
A final thought on this: These bills trash the concept of parental rights – a concept you would expect the Religious Right to hold dear. Because prayer (or any religious activity, for that matter) is intensely personal, no arm of the government must ever presume to impose it on anyone – especially young people. Parents have the right to decide what religion (if any) their own children will be exposed to.
When public schools take it upon themselves to foster prayer or other religious activities, they interfere in the parent-child relationship and usurp parental rights. After all, how can you be sure the prayer or “inspirational message” being delivered at the football game comports with what you’re teaching your kids at home? (Also, how are people going to react when a student “initiates” a prayer beginning, “In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful”?)
Want to safeguard parental rights? Then tell the government to butt out of your kids’ spiritual lives. Value prayer? Then teach your children to pray at home, and they’ll do it at school – but the choice will be theirs.
P.S. Three members of the clergy who work with Americans United (among them Merrill Shapiro, president of AU's Board of Trustees) sent a letter to members of the Florida Senate’s Committee on Education prior to the hearing, expressing opposition to the bill. The missive was also signed by eight of AU's state chapters. But the committee approved the bill on a 4-1 vote Nov. 1. It still has a way to go before becoming law, so if you live in Florida, you should be paying attention.