School prayer in San Diego: New twist in old debate

Sunday, July 22, 2007

When public schools attempt to accommodate religious requirements of students, they sometimes discover that the road to controversy is paved with good intentions.

Consider the dilemma of administrators and teachers at Carver Elementary School in San Diego, who find themselves at the center of the latest twist in the long-running debate over school prayer.

After a large infusion of Somali Muslims last year, the school suddenly had a significant population of children who are obligated by their faith to pray five times a day — one of those times falling within the school day.

Well-intentioned administrators responded by setting aside 15 minutes in class every afternoon so that the Muslim students could offer the required midday prayer. Other students are free to read or write as they choose.

But critics left and right say this accommodation goes too far. Americans United for Separation of Church and State calls the policy a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause. At the other end of the ideological spectrum, the Thomas More Law Center sees it as a double standard that favors one religious group over others.

Lawyers at the conservative Pacific Justice Institute take a different tack: Don’t end the prayer policy, expand it by creating a “daily prayer time” for students of all faiths to pray and inviting religious leaders in “to facilitate the prayer times.”

Nice try, but the Supreme Court has long interpreted the First Amendment as prohibiting public schools from organizing prayer — and religious leaders from leading worship in classrooms. Trying to cure one First Amendment violation with other violations won’t add up: Two (or three or four) constitutional wrongs will never equal a constitutional right.

Carver’s prayer policy may go too far, but that doesn’t mean some solution can’t be found. After all, the First Amendment doesn’t bar school officials from ever doing anything to accommodate religion. In fact, schools routinely accommodate religious needs of students and parents — granting everything from exemptions to the “no head coverings” policy to excusal from class parties.

Such individual accommodations, however, don’t alter school life for everyone else; setting aside 15 minutes daily in the classroom does. Even if non-Muslim students are free not to pray (or to pray in their own way) during that time, they are a captive audience in a classroom where students are carrying out a prayer ritual.

Nor does the First Amendment bar students from praying in public schools: Students are free to pray alone or in groups — as long as such prayers don’t disrupt the school or interfere with the rights of others. Student prayers around the flagpole, in religious clubs, at the lunchroom table and, of course, whenever there’s a math test, are all commonplace in schools these days.

But allowing students to pray on their own time (as protected by the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause) is a far cry from organizing prayer time as part of the classroom schedule (as prohibited by the First Amendment’s establishment clause). The Carver policy is the wrong way to do the right thing.

What, if anything, can be done? If Carver were a high school, the solution would be relatively straightforward: Let the students pray during their lunch period in some free space available during that time. This is, in fact, what now happens in many high schools across the country.

Elementary schools, however, are very different places. Young students require more supervision, including during lunch. They don’t have “free time” between classes or other opportunities to go off by themselves to pray.

One solution likely to pass constitutional muster would be to schedule recess for all students immediately after lunch or later in the afternoon. During this recess, students would be free to pray or play as they chose while under the supervision of teachers.

This approach takes school-organized “prayer time” out of the classroom (satisfying Americans United), and gives Muslims and students of all faiths the option of praying (satisfying the Thomas More Law Center).

Whether Carver tries this or some other approach, I hope school officials in San Diego will find a constitutional alternative to the current policy. Done right, accommodating the religious requirements of students strengthens religious freedom — not just for Muslims, but for us all.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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