Limits on school prayer protect rights of all people

Sunday, May 2, 1999

Most columns provoke a few responses. But write anything about “school prayer” and the letters pour in.

One reader declares that my recent column on why the First Amendment prohibits coaches from praying with their students is “the silliest statement” she has ever read.

She isn't alone. Another angry reader declares that I must have been “raised in a cocoon with my own little environment.” In the real world, he writes, “people in this country are used to having the right to worship as they want.”

A number of readers blame “minorities.” (Atheists are singled out for special scorn.) According to one letter-writer, “inch by inch our freedoms are being taken away by minorities.”

Why does prayer — more than any other religion-in-schools issue — inspire so much deep emotion and so many strong convictions?

I can think of at least two reasons. First, many Americans don't view prayers by coaches or teachers as “government prayers,” any more than they view public schools as “state schools.” They see the local school as their community school, a place where their values and traditions should be upheld.

Second, some Americans view Supreme Court school-prayer rulings as “kicking God out of the schools” (thereby contributing to moral breakdown and secularization, both in schools and in society at large).

Yes, public schools are community schools. But they are supported by tax funds, and they belong to all citizens. Public-school teachers and administrators are there to represent all of us, citizens of all faiths or none.

Of course, public schools can and should uphold shared community values and civic principles. But there is no religious consensus in America, and to impose one would be both unjust and unconstitutional.

Moreover, the Supreme Court didn't kick God out of schools (although some people have misused the prayer rulings to unfairly exclude religion). What the court did say is that government may not impose religion on a captive audience of impressionable young people.

I can well understand the frustration and anger of those who feel that schools have become hostile to religion. Indeed, many schools have failed to adequately protect the religious-liberty rights of their students. But the answer isn't to allow teachers to worship with students during the school day or to otherwise permit school officials to get involved in the religious life of students.

The solution is to make sure that school policies protect the right of students to pray, as long as the students aren't coercive or disruptive, as well as students' rights to share their faith, form religious clubs and in other ways exercise their freedom of religion.

Is keeping teachers fair and neutral toward religion a matter of the “minority” controlling the “majority?” Not at all. While it's true that the First Amendment is intended to protect the rights of even the smallest minority, this religious-liberty arrangement is actually in the best interest of all groups of whatever size. Only when religion is free from government interference is religion truly free.

Some of my Christian readers are quick to support teacher involvement in prayer when Christians are in the majority. But would they feel the same in Dearborn, Mich., where large numbers of Muslims are in the classroom? Or in parts of Hawaii where Buddhists are the largest faith group? Or in some New York schools where Jewish teachers and students outnumber others? Protecting the “rights of the minority” becomes more urgent when you're the minority.

Thirty-seven years after the Supreme Court's decisions prohibiting state-sponsored prayer in public schools, can we finally move beyond the “prayer debate”?

Probably not. But if schools will do everything they can to uphold the First Amendment rights of all students, we might at least get beyond the false choice of imposing religion or keeping it out.