Saturday, January 11, 2014

Prayer is back in the news, but should it in the public school

Prayer is back in the news, but should it in the school.

Don’t know much about history

Don’t know much biology

Don’t know much about a science book

Turns out Sam Cooke wasn’t the only one with a problem with school.

First a little history.  In 1962’s Engel v Vitale, the Supreme Court ruled New York’s practice of opening the school day with prayer violated the Establishment Clause.  Justice Black wrote the Establishment Clause was violated when school put "indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the officially approved religion."  In 1985’s Wallace v Jaffree the state of Alabama tried to skirt Engel by calling for a "period of silence for meditation or silent prayer."  Believing that making the “period” optional and not mandatory, Alabama thought it could escape the coercive claim.  But the court ruled 5-4 against Alabama on the grounds it failed the Lemon Test:

Government action violates the Establishment Clause unless it:
1. Has a significant secular (i.e., non-religious) purpose,
2. Does not have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, and
3. Does not foster excessive entanglement between government and religion.

In Lee v Weisman (1992) the court once again ruled 5-4 that a benediction at a middle school graduation violated the First Amendment as Justice Kennedy noted that an unacceptable level of coercion as students would be compelled to stand as asked.  In short, the Supreme Court has historically struck down any practice that coerces participation or endorses a religion.

Which brings us to South Carolina.  The Palmetto State legislature had come up with a bill H3526 which would require teachers to lead the students in a moment of silence or prayer.  Students who chose not to participate would be free to leave the classroom.  Based on the case law cited above, it was obvious that this wouldn’t pass a constitutional challenge due to the participation of the teacher and the coercion.  Legislators came up with a compromise saying the teachers would lead the students in a moment of silence, where students could pray if they choose, and those that chose not to participate could leave the classroom.  Is it not a form of coercion to tell a child he is free to leave a room if he chooses not to participate?  Try putting yourself in the shoes of a 2nd grader.  What child may leave the room knowing they will likely get ridiculed by classmates and it won’t end with the kids.  Parents will get involved as well.  It will be pitchforks and torches time.

But why do people feel we need prayer in school to begin with when we have the home, church, and any number of private organizations.  Some claim it will improve our global standings in Math, Science, and Reading.  Based on what?  1962?  Look around, the US hasn’t slipped, the problem is it hasn’t kept up with the developing and emerging world.  I am not buying the argument that school prayer will lead to better grades.  After all, isn’t it the Godless Chinese that are ruling the educational battle?

But what may help our children better understand the hyper-connected world we live in is to teach about religion and not religious instruction or prayer.  We would be more enlightened and less ignorant on those to which we share this planet.  While the xenophobic Tea Party and ultranationalist neocons see a terrorist in every mosque and a threat in every as-salam alaykum, we would be better off if our kids understood the difference between a Shia and Sunni and the origins of Islam.

What about biology? What also strikes me as peculiar is the same people calling for public school prayer are the same ones calling for removal of sexual education or human sexuality instruction classes from public school.  It seems school is no place for biology, but the perfect place for prayer.  Yes the same folks who want public school prayer are the same folks who say “Sex education doesn’t belong in the school, it should only be discussed at home.” Now I am not against prayer.  Far from it.  People of faith and with faith, should be free to express their beliefs freely at home, freely in private settings, and most certainly in their places of worship.  But the Constitution and the case law is pretty clear that it does not belong in the public school, and asking a child to opt out is not acceptable. 

When I was a school kid I joined my classmates singing Christmas carols in December.  Being raised Jewish I had no problem singing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer or Santa Claus is Coming to Town, but when it came to Silent Night I remained, well, silent.  Did I feel coerced into singing Christmas songs, possibly.  But it shouldn’t be up to the majority to decide what is acceptable for the minority.

When Megyn Kelly said “Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change” in defense of her white Santa and white Jesus claim she made the point for why coercion is unacceptable. 


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