Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Silence is Deafening

Our judicial system continues to turn a deaf ear to States that try to return prayer to our public schools by beginning the school day with a moment of silence. The Courts take this posture despite the fact that each day it is in session the U.S. Congress is opened with a verbal prayer. Illinois, the state of Presidential candidate Barack Obama, is the latest to feel the Courts' indignation over having a moment of silence.

Last October the Illinois’ state legislature passed a law requiring a moment of silence in public school. Suit was promptly filed by an atheist challenging the law on the basis of the First Amendment establishment of religion clause, which prohibits the establishment of a State religion. The case is in the U.S. District Court, and though the Court has not yet issued a formal ruling, it has found that the law is “probably” unconstitutional. As such, the Court has mandated that this law shall be stayed until a final ruling is made.

This would have been unheard of prior to the 1960’s when prayer and reading the Bible in public schools was an accepted norm. However, that changed in 1962 when the Supreme Court ruling in Engel v. Vitale placed a prohibition on public schools sponsoring prayer in the school. At issue was the following prayer that teachers in the Union Free School District (New York) were required to lead at the beginning of each school day:

"Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country."

How the Court found that this prayer established a State religion seems beyond rationale thinking. In fact, it is difficult to believe that this prayer would even be controversial; especially today, when recent polling indicates some 93% of Americans believe in a divine being, or divine presence. Surely, even Oprah, would not find such a prayer offensive, as it has more of a universal appeal rather than one that is tied to a particular faith tradition. (To read more about this case go to: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=370&invol=421)

Having successfully removed prayer, the following year, the court issued another ruling which prohibited Bible reading in public schools (Abington School District v. Schempp). In this case, the Schempp family, who were Unitarians, filed suit in opposition to a PA Statute which required: "At least ten verses from the Holy Bible shall be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day”. This statute further provided children could opt out of participating with a written request from their parent or guardian. (To read more about this case go to: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=374&invol=203)

I was still in grade school in the “Bible Belt” when these rulings were issued and can remember teachers continuing to have Bible reading and prayer in class for years afterward. These teachers were simply reflecting the “faith” beliefs and traditions of the community – the same beliefs and traditions that were honored and present at the founding of our nation and that are still widely held today.

In fact, a 2005 Gallup poll found that 76% of Americans favor “a constitutional amendment to allow voluntary prayer in public schools”. The Gallup researchers concluded “[the survey] confirms that whatever arguments political leaders make about separation of church and state in the public schools, most Americans don't seem to be persuaded. Large majorities continue to favor allowing voluntary prayer in public schools, and believe that religion has too little presence in them”.

Like Illinois, a number of states have tried to maintain the right to pray in public schools by passing statutes providing for silent prayer. But the Courts have often intervened on the basis of a ruling that such laws must have a non-religious, or secular, motivation. So, "secular" or "non-religious" praying is okay?

My own state, Alabama, found that out in the case of Wallace v. Jaffree, 1985. In this case, the Supreme Court affirmed an Appeals Court ruling that an Alabama Statute – allowing public schools to have a one minute period of silence, “for meditation or voluntary prayer” – “is a law respecting the establishment of religion and thus violates the First Amendment”. (To read more about this case go to: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=472&invol=38)

The journey to remove God from our schools has been a relatively short and efficient one. It is also one that has been carried out despite being out of step with the will of the majority and often under the ridiculous assertion that these laws were meant to establish a State religion.

In a country where freedom of speech is a guaranteed right, it seems odd that the Supreme Court finds a moment of silence to be so offensive and out of step with our guaranteed rights. Perhaps people of faith need to exercise that right to free speech more often and make known the “will of the people”.

That's my toughts, what are yours?

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