Soul Searching

The call for school prayer is coming not only from fundamentalists and right-wing zealots but also from ordinary people in ordinary towns who believe that our schools have lost a sense of moral purpose. And, in a sense, they're right

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On a pleasant spring evening last June, parents and students attending the Oostburg High School graduation stood up, folded their hands, and prayed as the Presbyterian minister delivered the invocation. On the surface, this was a less-than-remarkable event; prayer has been an integral part of the Oostburg graduation ceremonies for 30 years, and an area pastor has always been invited to give an invocation and benediction. Furthermore, there were no community objections, at least publicly, to the inclusion of prayer. All 81 seniors voted for prayer at graduation; it was, residents of this deeply conservative Dutch Reformist Wisconsin town believed, an important Oostburg tradition.

Two weeks after the graduation, Oostburg School Superintendent Marvin Hopland told me it was the nicest commencement he had ever attended. Over and over again, parents had commented to him on the sense of celebration they'd felt. It was this good feeling, Hopland insisted, that was missing from graduation programs omitting prayer. “The comment I got from persons who attended a prayerless graduation at a school in a neighboring district,” he said, “was that it was empty, hollow—that it wasn't a celebration.” More than 90 percent of Wisconsin's public schools, he estimated—an estimate shared by the Wisconsin American Civil Liberties Union—had done away with their traditional graduation prayers, fearful of legal repercussions. One of them was a high school in Ripon. In the days following graduation, Ripon had been struck by tornadoes, and Hopland read to me the following newspaper headline: “ `Twenty-two Twisters Whirl Through State: Swift storm clobbers Ripon the hardest.' Now,” Hopland continued, “I wouldn't be so crass as to suggest that...but it's interesting.”

Ordinary as it may have appeared, Oostburg's graduation was carried out in what many believe is a direct violation of the law. In the weeks preceding the Oostburg ceremony, Hopland had received numerous letters from the Wisconsin ACLU threatening a lawsuit should the high school proceed with plans for prayer. The superintendent, who proudly keeps a Bible on his desk and the Ten Commandments posted on his office wall, had both a legal and emotional response. On the graduation program's cover, he issued a qualifying statement: “While all are asked to rise for the invocation and benediction, none is compelled to join in them, nor will be assumed by rising to have done so.” He told me: “Oostburg fears God, not the ACLU—that's a position more school districts should consider.”

What both Hopland and the ACLU were responding to was a September 1992 Supreme Court ruling that seemed to terminate, once and for all, any plans public school officials might have for school-sponsored prayer at graduation. The highly publicized case, Lee vs. Weisman, involved a Rhode Island school that had invited a rabbi to deliver a nonsectarian prayer at a middle school promotion ceremony. The plaintiffs, student Laura Weisman and her father, claimed that the prayer violated the First Amendment's establishment clause, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Weismans argued that by inviting a rabbi to give a prayer, even a nonsectarian prayer, the government was establishing religion, indirectly coercing those attending the graduation to participate.

By a 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court agreed, citing the principal's direct involvement in the planning of the prayer. Judge Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, stated, “The Constitution forbids the state to exact religious conformity from a student as the price of attending her own high school graduation.”

The problem, though, was that different people had vastly different ideas as to exactly what constituted school-sponsored prayer. Organizations such as the ACLU and People for the American Way suggested that virtually any prayer given at graduation (or any other school event) is in essence school-sponsored and a violation of the First Amendment, as the school would have to provide a framework or context for deliverance of the prayer; for example, a spot would have to be set aside for prayer with the tacit approval of school officials. This would violate the establishment clause as interpreted by the Supreme Court.

On the other hand, conservative organizations, such as Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, insisted that prayer at graduation (and other public school events) is constitutional as long as it is nonsectarian and student-initiated. As ACLJ attorney Jay Sekulow stated in an April news release, “A student's right to free speech [i.e., prayer] does not end when he or she stands up to get a diploma.” Preceding the release, the ACLJ had sent bulletins to the nation's 15,000 public school superintendents explaining its position regarding student prayer rights. School officials who denied students the right to pray at graduation may very well, the ACLJ warned, encounter “legal swat teams.”

The ACLJ's position is seemingly supported by a recent ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. The court, ruling in Jones vs. Clear Creek Independent School District, found that prayer at a Texas high school graduation was constitutional because it had been led and initiated by students. In June, the Supreme Court declined to review the 5th Circuit's decision, perhaps leaving the door open to graduation prayer in certain circumstances. In any case, the ruling in Jones vs. Clear Creek added to the confusion many already have over exactly what kind of prayer is and is not constitutional.

The Oostburg school district used the Clear Creek ruling to argue that its graduation prayer was constitutional because students, not school officials, invited the pastor.

To opponents of graduation prayer, this argument seemed disingenuous. The school officials had known of the impending prayer and provided a spot for it and had, therefore—regardless of their disclaimers—sponsored it in a very real sense. Christopher Ahmet, director of the Wisconsin ACLU, said of Superintendent Hopland, “He's doing things almost as if he were inviting a lawsuit,” an interpretation Hopland called “ridiculous.”

Complex as school-prayer cases are—no two are quite the same—the fact of the matter is that Americans at the grassroots level are generally uninterested in legal and constitutional issues. Very few, I would submit, know anything of the establishment clause. All they know is that they favor, by a wide majority, some kind of prayer in our public schools and don't understand why they cannot have it. This past spring, as the graduation-prayer issue heated up, citizens across the country packed local school board meetings, wondering—sometimes indignantly—why a brief and seemingly innocuous prayer could not be offered at graduation.

“If they don't want prayer,” said a man in the streets of Farmer City, Ill.—a site of graduation-prayer controversy—“they should stay the hell out of town.” Another Farmer City man said, “I think there should be prayer at graduation, though I'm not going to argue with you as to why.” Yet another asked, “Why should a few people on the Supreme Court be able to tell the rest of us what to do?”

The more I talked to people, especially people in smaller school districts, the more I heard this majoritarian echo. If we all want graduation prayer, the argument essentially goes, then we should be able to have it. Indeed, many people believe the courts are merely obstructionists.

“I think the Supreme Court ruling [in Lee vs. Weisman] is very inconsistent,” says Kathy Dix of First Amendment Includes Religious Rights, an advocacy group based in Wausau, Wis. “The land wants prayer. Two different times, we took a petition to the school board. We took polls in the community. The newspaper took a poll. The radio stations took a poll. The TV stations took a poll. Eighty percent of the community wanted to keep prayers; 91 percent wanted to keep prayers at graduation. I think the Supreme Court ruling is absurd, ridiculous. They talk about impressionable minds, and that's absurd. These kids at 18 years old can vote; they can look at pornography; they know every four-letter word in the book; but they can't even stand there and listen to a prayer because it might hurt their minds.”

Dix's figures are borne out on a national basis by a number of polls. One published in Reader's Digest indicates that 75 percent of Americans favor prayer in the public schools and that a full 80 percent disapprove of the Supreme Court ruling that it is unconstitutional for prayer to be offered at graduation. The Reader's Digest article concludes with a statement by Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute: “The cultural and political elites have simply ignored the overwhelming support of the American people for voluntary school prayer—indeed, for the role of religion and faith in the nation's life.”

But there is a political irony in this feverish citing of polls. For majoritarianism, an outlook commonly shared by prayer proponents, is at its core unconstitutional and even, I could argue, un-American. As Derek Davis of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church and State Studies at Baylor University contends, the basic purpose of the Bill of Rights is “to put certain fundamental freedoms above legislative majoritarian enactments.” The establishment clause, as he and other constitutional scholars see it, was designed to protect the religious rights of everyone, especially the rights of minorities who may be intimidated by a zealous majority.

Robert Alley, a religion professor at the University of Richmond, who is writing a book on prayer issues, agrees with Davis. “The school-prayer advocates,” he says, “always insist that the majority should have a right to do what they please. They miss the First Amendment by a mile, as well as the Madisonian concern that the greatest danger in a democracy is the tyranny of the majority.”

Alley fears that many Americans, indifferent to and unschooled in the meaning of the Constitution, are falling prey to the majoritarian impulse, which becomes, in the case of someone like Ross Perot, a kind of “technological populism.” Indeed, behind the school-prayer movement is a strong populist resentment, a feeling that an elite minority—college-educated liberals, for example—has imposed its will upon what Jerry Falwell used to call “the moral majority.”

To advocates of school prayer, the First Amendment and the Madisonian/Jeffersonian principles of separation of church and state are almost beside the point. People such as Dix claim, with support from several well-respected legal scholars, that the separation between church and state was never intended to be absolute. After all, Thomas Jefferson was the first president of the District of Columbia school board when the primary texts were the Bible and Watts' hymnal. People also feel that something is seriously amiss in a legal system that ignores the wishes of the majority, even though they insist that they don't see their views as indicative of majority rule. Instead, they speak, as do several pro-prayer school administrators in Illinois, of “community standards” and “local school control”—time-honored phrases in the American lexicon. These things, they argue, are part of the American political heritage, and they are things that the outsiders—groups such as the ACLU and the turncoat Supreme Court—are trying to take away.

On May 23, in a steaming field house in Peoria, Ill., privately rented by Christian groups wanting a religious oriented graduation ceremony, the mayor of Peoria, Jim Maloof, welcomed students and parents to the baccalaureate entitled “A Hope and a Future.”

“In the future,” he told the audience, “this event will grow and grow. I'm sure our forefathers would have rather not had this ceremony separated from the kind of [public school graduation] celebration we have seen and known for years. But it is a different time now, a time when disbelievers hold power over those who do believe. To the students, keep on being believers. To the parents, we thank you for bringing your children up in His grace.”

Listening to the mayor, I found it hard to understand just why prayer at public school graduation is so important to so many people—important enough for the mayor to implicitly label those who oppose graduation prayer at school ceremonies as “disbelievers.” Why does the prayer issue create such hard-edged emotion, causing normally rational people to think in either-or terms? Why do people feel a need to pray at public schools when they have an unlimited opportunity to pray in their private lives? Why isn't a privately sponsored baccalaureate enough? Why insist on prayer at high school graduation if it causes such consternation and divisiveness?

As I pondered these questions, I realized that the prayer-at-graduation issue is about much more than just what legal connection, if any, religion could have with public school life. In a much broader sense, it is a debate between people with very different visions of what our public schools should be and with very different notions about what the schools should teach.

On one side are those who feel that religious practices simply have no business being in public schools. Many academics and professional educators in this camp assert that schools must honor diversity and teach tolerance and respect for the views of others. To some extent, these views are manifested in the new wave of multiculturalism, which demands an acceptance of very different ways of life; they are also evidenced in new sex education curricula, which many critics insist are less educational than inappropriately suggestive.

On the other side are not only fundamentalists and right-wing zealots but also ordinary people in ordinary towns who believe that the schools have lost a sense of moral purpose. For many of these people, tolerance and multiculturalism and self-esteem building are code words for “anything goes,” for rampant moral relativism. The citizens flocking to school board meetings in support of graduation prayer have heard plenty in the media over the last few years to persuade them that talk of AIDS and condoms and homosexuality is commonplace in our schools.

In Peoria, parents wonder about a new sex curriculum that downplays abstinence while talking of gay lifestyles and the normalcy of masturbation. In Farmer City, a woman laments the fact that “no one fears God anymore.” In Wausau, a man is appalled “that children can hear God's name profaned at any time of the day, but, if they want to pray, they can be punished by the law.” In Chesapeake City, Va., Councilman Peter Duda says: “They can talk about sex and abortion, but they can't talk about religion.... That's just stupid.”

It doesn't seem to matter that the Constitution forbids an establishment of religion by the state but does not prohibit a student from praying anytime he or she wishes. To advocates of prayer, it just doesn't make sense—and is in fact immoral—to ban prayer in schools while permitting sex education or the distribution of condoms.

Says Dix of FAIRR: “You see the direction our country is going in with kids. The abortion thing, the homosexuality, the violence. You know, we never used to have problems like that. We've gone downhill since '62 [the year of Engel vs. Vitale, the first Supreme Court ruling banning school-sponsored prayer] because the schools don't recognize that a person has three different parts to him: intellectual, spiritual, physical. You have to balance these parts out for students to be whole. But nobody will say, No, you shouldn't have sex before you're married. No, in '62, they took the absolutes out. We're heading toward a barbarian society. Only this time, the barbarians will be sophisticated people in suits instead of furs.”

Dix's “barbarians in suits,” as she so caustically puts it, are those who deny the primacy of moral absolutes. They are the progressives, the multi- culturalists, the therapists who talk to students about the primacy of feelings, as if right and wrong are antiquated notions. Dix's epithet could certainly apply to the ACLU; it could also apply to education philosopher John Dewey, who once wrote: “Faith in the prayer-hearing God is an unproved and outmoded faith. There is no God, and there is no soul. Hence, there are no needs for the props of traditional religion. With dogma and creed excluded, then immutable truth is also dead and buried. There is no room for fixed, natural law or moral absolutes.”

While many proponents of school prayer may know little if anything of John Dewey, there is no doubt that they would by and large condemn the educational progressivism with which he—fairly or unfairly—is so indelibly associated. For progressivism—which is holistic in emphasis and suggests that children should discover and create meaning for themselves—requires a turning away from traditional notions of classroom control, of teacher as authority, leading, critics charge, to a relativistic environment. It's no wonder, then, that so many school-prayer proponents are often the same people who advocate “back-to-basics” approaches while disparaging child-centered school reforms. “The people in this community,” says the principal of a school in a small Illinois town, “are religious and conservative. They're in favor of prayer and order in the classroom”—the supposition being that the two are somehow related.

There is a strong feeling among these people that a return to the basics should be encouraged because it steers clear of the moral ambiguities that can be harmful to children. It is as if they are saying, “Let the schools teach the `three Rs' while we, the parents, teach them Christian values at home.” Of course, this stance is somewhat ironic in light of their insistence that schools provide a context for prayer.

Nevertheless, it is all too easy to forget just how many Americans are opposed to discourse that now pervades our public schools. This concerns not only what parents see as value-free sex education—value-free in that students are not told what is right and wrong sexual conduct—but also notions that are seemingly innocuous, such as self-esteem building. Many Christians believe that teaching children to feel good about themselves without providing an accompanying moral awareness, without encouraging an accompanying sense of sin, can lead only to irresponsible and smug self-satisfaction.

It isn't, then, that prayer at graduation is in itself such a critical issue but rather that it has become, for many people, the last straw, the capitulation of the public schools to the forces of secularism and moral relativism that have been in ascendance since 1962, when the Supreme Court essentially banned all but voluntary school prayer.

For many prayer proponents, the 1962 ruling was devastating; it particularly enraged citizens in the South and Midwest who resented outsiders telling them what to do. Before the Engel ruling, and the later decisions built upon it, prayer was an unquestioned facet of daily life in many public schools. Prayer was routinely recited not only at graduation, but also at everything from class meetings to football rallies. Prayer proponents, then, haven't necessarily become more reactionary in their views; they see themselves, rather, as people who are trying to hold the line against a society and its schools that have become increasingly morally negligent and antagonistic toward religion.

And their views are justified, according to some legal scholars, who say schools discriminate against religion to an extent not required by the law. Law professor Michael McDonnell of the University of Chicago points to the case of a Tennessee valedictorian who wasn't allowed to make her scheduled speech because the administration had learned she was going to say Jesus Christ's coming into her life was the most important thing that had ever happened to her. As far as McDonnell is concerned, this was not a violation of the establishment clause but an example of the denial of free speech. Other such cases abound. In a Wisconsin 3rd grade classroom, a girl could not display her valentine because she had written, “I love Jesus.” In another case, a principal tried to ban a 10-yearold girl from reading a Bible on the school bus. “There has been,” McDonnell says, “an overreaction to Supreme Court decisions; part of it is just the cultural Zeitgeist. There's a feeling that separation of church from state means total secularization, and I think that is wrong. An individual should be able to express his or her own views in a public context. Now, if individuals say, `Give us the floor so we can pray,' it's a different case.”

McDonnell also notes the virtual absence of the Bible and religious discussion from many school curricula and textbooks, even though the JudeoChristian heritage has shaped much of Western history. “Teachers and schools often treat religion as off-limits,” he insists, even though “the court has gone out of its way to say that the establishment clause doesn't mean that the Bible, for instance, can't be read and discussed in class.”

Constitutional scholar Michael Paulsen of the University of Minnesota agrees with McDonnell. “Many people don't understand that students have legal rights to engage in free speech. It's just that teachers and principals have been slow to understand the difference between government-sponsored prayer, which is unconstitutional, and free speech. You have a generation of teachers who came of age during a period when the court struck down government-sponsored prayer. They misunderstood this to mean that you couldn't have prayer in school at all, which certainly isn't right. The schools have overreacted.”

Many scholars—both liberals and conservatives—share this point of view. School officials, they say, are so concerned about liability that they sometimes attempt to eliminate all forms of prayer. In effect, then, the Lee vs. Weisman decision, along with earlier Supreme Court decisions, becomes a far-reaching prohibition against all religious expression.

Richard Duncan of the University of Nebraska, in a 1990 article in the Indiana Law Review, writes about what he sees as “a form of religious apartheid” in American public life, a “systematic exclusion of religious ideas, expression, and symbols.” Nowhere, he argues, is the attempt to secularize all aspects of public life more apparent than in the American public school system.

The article details the case of Brid- get Mergens, who as an Omaha, Neb., high school student in 1985 was denied permission by school officials to form a Bible study club at the school. Mergens and fellow students sued the school, arguing that the club should be permitted because it met the criteria of the 1984 Equal Access Act, which provides that if a public school maintains “a limited open forum,” it may not deny equal access to student meetings “on the basis of religious, political, philosophical, or other content of the speech at such meetings.” School officials, however, argued that the formation of a Bible club violated the establishment clause, even though the students claimed the club, like many other student clubs at the school, was noncurriculum-related and hence could not be construed as government-sponsored. But school officials took a hard line against the proposed club, the principal even stating that he would, if necessary, do away with all school clubs if this would prevent the Bible study group from meeting on the campus. Recognition of the club would, school administrators argued, amount to an official endorsement of religion. This argument, Duncan writes, “equates tolerance with apparent endorsement and appears to be based on the assumption that the school endorses everything it does not censor.”

Eventually the Mergens case went to the Supreme Court, which upheld the Equal Access Act and hence allowed the students to form the club. But the point Duncan is trying to make with his presentation of the case is that public schools' attitudes toward religious expression often move from neutrality to outright hostility, the result being “a pervasively hostile and chilling environment for religious people who venture onto this intellectually and spiritually sterile landscape.”

This is not to say that an exact parallel can be drawn between the Mergens case and Lee vs. Weisman. Duncan himself supports the Weisman decision, arguing that government must never allow itself to be in a position where it can be seen as coercing religious expression. What he does argue is that school officials have gone too far in prohibiting religious expression and now must moderate their stance. “I think what's lawful after Lee-Weisman,” he says, “is that the school can say we'll give the graduating class three minutes at the beginning and end of the ceremony, and the students can do whatever they want to do with that time.”

While talking about the legal implications of Lee vs. Weisman, Duncan, quite unexpectedly, makes a personal statement that seems to sum up the problems that many school-prayer proponents have with public schools.

“I'm not a big supporter of public schools,” he says. “In fact, I've become a strong advocate of people removing their kids from the public school system because of the limitations on what public schools can do. They can't explore many critical issues that should be part of education. They can go only so far, then they have to say, `Sorry, you'll have to ask your mom and dad about that.' The schools cannot consider the Creator's perspective, and this hurts them. They can tell us about condoms but not the Ten Commandments. I sense a real Christian school movement out there. Every time one of these things happens—the Rainbow Curriculum, the talk of condoms—more people will say we've had it with public schools. They'll begin demanding vouchers.

“I was talking to a public school counselor at my church the other day, and he became angry at me, saying I was bashing the public schools again. I said, `No, I'm not. I think the people out there are great. But what about yourself? You're a counselor and a Christian who believes in the Bible and God's perspective on abortion, sexuality, and so on. Now, when a kid comes to you for advice, can you tell the truth as you understand it?' He looked away; he couldn't really respond.”

Duncan, it seems to me, got to the heart of the graduation-prayer controversy. It isn't that the prayer issue is in itself so important but rather that it is an issue people have latched onto because it represents to them something much larger and more urgent: the loss of vision and meaningful values in our public schools.

I think of a conversation I had with Jay Hall, the well-spoken principal of Westville High School in rural Illinois. The school, in response to the Lee vs. Weisman ruling, had done away with its traditional graduation prayers, a decision with which Hall agreed. “If you set up a structure,” he told me, “in which the student is compelled to participate in prayer, then you're actually creating coercion. So I told the kids that if they individually feel a need to have a moment of silence or to pray at some point in the ceremony, then they can privately do that. Yet to do so as a group isn't appropriate because of the connotation of coercion.

“Tradition carries a lot of weight in our community. We have a strong Catholic population that is very much pro-prayer. But the bottom line is that we in the schools can't be anything. If you're a public official, you have to be completely neutral.”

Hall may be correct about the need for teachers and principals to be neutral in matters of religion. The problem is that all too often people perceive this neutrality as something applied to values in general, causing them to become increasingly disenchanted with public schools. This doesn't mean, of course, that the schools should in any way encourage or establish religious activities. To do so is clearly unconstitutional and simply wrong.

Robert Alley of the University of Richmond tells a story to illustrate why it's wrong. In public elementary school, his son had been faced with mandatory prayer and Bible reading. When Alley went in to complain, the principal said, “What are you? A Jew?” When Alley continued to complain, the principal agreed to stop the religious activities in class but rather ominously suggested that his son would suffer. “He'll be ostracized,” the principal said.

Alley also tells of a Jewish classmate in the 1940s who refused to participate in Christian prayer activities. Before his refusal, he had been an ordinary, well-liked boy; afterward, everyone started calling him “the Jew.”

“The best evidence that school-sponsored prayer activities are wrong,” Alley says, “is what happens when somebody challenges it. The abuse heaped upon them, the threats, can be extreme. The anger and bitterness that comes forth is the best reason why we ought not to do it.”

Still, the question remains: If public schools cannot, for sound legal and moral reasons, promote religious activities, how can they still convey to their students moral purpose and vision? Clearly, neutrality regarding ethical choices is no answer, nihilistic as that sort of stand must inevitably be. To be neutral in the broadest sense of the word is to be nothing, which is why so many people see our public schools as moral black holes, collapsing in on themselves.

Back in the early and middle 1960s, when I was an elementary school student, teachers frequently spoke to us about freedom and civic responsibility. We learned that freedom—the right to speak, believe, and act as we wished—was at the heart of America's promise; but we also learned that this freedom, if it were to be more than a mere desire to fulfill our personal and inevitably selfish wishes, must also be paired with certain immutable values: honesty, courage, compassion, and the like.

While the Cold War hysteria unfortunately inspired some of these lessons—America's righteousness was always contrasted with the Soviet Union's inequity—I found them meaningful nevertheless. And it seems to me that if there is one thing opponents and proponents of school prayer can agree on, it's that the welfare of our society and our political system depends upon inculcating in each generation an understanding of freedom and a commitment to civic responsibility. These have always been stated objectives of the common school, and they are needed more than ever in these times when we seem to have lost our sense of community and our compassion for one another.

Alley, who provides sound reasons as to why public schools should not become entangled with religion, also provides a provocative alternative to the moral indifference that so many critics charge characterizes the public schools.

“You know,” the religion professor says, “you can still talk in the public schools about justice, love, honesty, compassion, freedom—all Biblical concepts. The text we can use is the Constitution, a document that has its roots in the moral fiber of the West. The Constitution is not per se a Christian document, but it's capable of holding us together, of teaching us vital American values.... I worry that many of my students—indeed all students—don't know enough about the Constitution.”

I don't think Alley is talking about the old civics courses offered in schools. He is not just concerned that students know how many representatives and senators there are in Congress or what the separation of powers means. Alley is talking about the ideas and values that are the fundament of civic responsibility and ethical behavior.

Even so, it is unlikely that a redoubled emphasis on the Constitution's moral vision contained within democracy would appease those who want to knock down the wall between church and state and introduce religion into the schools. But it may be a good place to start. It could provide a meeting place, a common ground for understanding, for those who are so bitterly divided over the relationship of church and state.

Vol. 05, Issue 01, Pages 30-34

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