Two recent bills before state legislatures have shone a new light on a half-century of controversy. In Alabama, a 30-year ban on the teaching of yoga has been dropped, and in Florida state officials are seeking to make two minutes of silence for prayer or reflection a mandatory part of school days.
Both of these developments are positive steps to fill a hole in the education of our children. Put simply, they open the door to a restoration of prayer in public schools.
For several decades now, American society has operated under a false assumption that banning prayer in public schools is irrevocable settled science. This belief, and it is very much a belief, is rooted in the 1962 Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale in which the Warren court found 6-1 that school-sponsored prayer violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The suit was brought in New York state by parents who objected to the non-denominational prayer that referenced “Almighty God” in Hyde Park, New York. It is important to note that the parents lost their case before the Supreme Court of New York, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York, and the Court of Appeals of New York, only to achieve victory in the nation’s highest court. So this was anything but an open and shut, obvious decision.
Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black opined that, “the First Amendment was added to the Constitution to stand as a guarantee that neither the power nor the prestige of the Federal Government would be used to control, support or influence the kinds of prayer the American people can say.”
This is a strange construction given that prayer always has been and remains a mainstay of government activity. Congress opens each day with a prayer, and in a 5-4 decision in 2014, the court found in favor of Greece, New York’s practice of opening monthly meetings with Christian prayer. That decision was supported by both Barack Obama and Mitch McConnell.
Prayer Is Allowed, But Is It Valued?
This mixed bag of jurisprudence indicates it is not at all clear that opening government meetings or public school days with prayer is the equivalent of the state “establishing” an official religion. This was a point made by Justice Potter Stewart, the lone dissenter in the Engel case. This leaves our communities with a choice. The prohibition on school prayer was not graven in stone; it was and is still a very open question.
The question before parents and politicians is not so much whether the Constitution allows for prayer in school, but whether there is value in it. Both Alabama and Florida, by legislating in favor of yoga and prayer, have taken positive steps to restore the ability of public schools to embrace and encourage in students an understanding of the world that goes beyond pure materialism. This is something that our society deeply needs.
Traditionally, the objection to school prayer has been that it is discriminatory against atheists and members of minority religions. But moments of silence in which prayer is encouraged, and even prayers offered to a nonspecific “Almighty God” do nothing to discriminate against either group, which is why prayer is not banned in Congress. In the case of atheists, it can be argued that their position, which is no longer fringe or condemned by society, is in fact given government sanction by banning school prayer.
The question of prayer in school and whether our children should be educated with the assumptions of atheists speaks to the national heritage of our country, one that prohibitions on prayer help to erase. When the Declaration of Independence asserted that “all men are created equal,” it was not presented as the learned opinion of our founding fathers but as a self-evident fact, the recognition of rights given by God, not man.
Our Children Need Faith
Opening our children’s school days with prayers to God sends the vital message that their value, their place in our world is not a matter of their skin color, or level of oppression, their sex, or any other immutable characteristic. They are, rather, of equal and immeasurable worth in the eyes of their Creator. The invocation of that God not only connects them to our national heritage, but to the development of the Christian West, and more broadly, as in the practice of yoga, to a universal impulse in human history to ask the help of a higher power.
When the Supreme Court banned school prayer in 1962, it existed within a dominant culture of Christian faith. That is decidedly no longer the case. It may have seemed impossible then that our nation would move in the direction of godlessness. They may well have believed that the practice of faith would endure even with the government actively erasing it from aspects of public life. Alas, this has not been the case as more and more Americans move away from faith.
Historically, governments that seek to erase religion in such ways have murderous track records; such as we have seen in modern China. This is precisely why our founders connected rights protected by government to a God who endows them. If our rights are mere matters of mortal opinion, then a host of horribles from repression to genocide can be defended as moves towards a common good. After all, in that case we decide what that is, right?
It is time for those of us who believe that rights are not possible without a God who bestows them to fight for that principle in our public lives and that of our children. There is no reason to be shy in this fight. There is no reason to believe that a general prayer in thanks to an Almighty God does any harm whatsoever to any child who hears or participates in it.
God is a vital concept in the American experience. We erase Him at our peril. It is not too late to restore this vital keystone to the basic political and social philosophy of our nation.