Religion, Schools, and the First Amendment

I’ve witnessed an interesting phenomenon on the internet while debating various religious conservatives.  Hell, you don’t need to even debate them, just google things such as “prayer in schools” and you’ll find plenty of blogs, sites, Tweets, Facebook pages, and so forth devoted to the “evils” of eliminating prayer from schools.  What most of these various complaints ignore, however, is the facts of  (1961) and .

The sad truth of the school prayer debate is that those fighting for prayer in school aren’t using the Constitution to back up their claims, and instead are using an ancient theology that has no bearing on the Constitution in the first place.  If you are going to argue for prayer in public schools, you can’t say “it’s a sin against G-d not to do so!”  If we were to form our laws on what is a sin against G-d, the consumption of shrimp and pig would be outlawed across these United States.  What you must do is understand that prayer by itself in a school setting is permitted under the First Amendment.

I have had religious individuals still fight me on that fact, but it’s simply true.  One individual suggested that schools still attempt to snuff out any form of prayer in schools when it is seen.  Another person claimed that her daughter was told not to discuss Santa or Christmas in school because it might be “offensive” to other students.  I’m not denying that these instances happen, as we know individual teachers may react to situations in a manner outside of the purview of their authority.

Engel v. Vitale simply states that the school cannot lead the rest of the school into prayer, even if said prayer is voluntary.   (2000) concluded that student-led prayer over school intercoms is a violation of the establishment class.  This is not to say, however, that a student (or small group of students) can’t pray at a cafeteria table prior to eating their lunch, or that Muslim students can’t pray at the appropriate times of the day.  Simply put, teachers and other school administrators can’t be used to lead students into a prayer in a public school.

What backs all of this up is (one of my personal favorite) Supreme Court case,  (1968) in which the the Court ruled that “students do not leave their rights at the schoolhouse door.”  The case involved high school students from Des Moines, Iowa that were protesting the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands.  The school believed that these black armbands would cause controversy and result in violence or other school distraction, and preemptively banned them from being worn.  The three students involved in the case believed they had the right to continue wearing them, and did so.  The Court ruled in favor of the students, stating that students do have limited speech in school settings, the school did not provide a good enough reason to ban the wearing of the black armbands.  (A good portion of why Des Moines lost could also be in the fact that the school allowed political paraphernalia to be worn or shown, such as presidential campaign pins.)

(1986) was a ruling by the courts that students do not have the First Amendment right to make “obscene gestures” in school.  Last time I checked, a quiet prayer between students at a lunch table (not involving school administrators) is not a violation of the Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser.  Common sense says that a student proselytizing in the hallway with administrators not stopping it could be a violation of the establishment clause (as administrative inaction could be seen as endorsement).  As well, a student telling others that they are going to hell for being gay, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, atheist, and so forth could be seen as a distraction or something that could possibly incite violence.  After all, children and teenagers are far less logical and far more emotional than adults.

In conclusion, I just want to ask everyone to understand that children are protected under the Constitution, even while they are attending a public school.  I arrived to my high school on the first anniversary of September 11th to find students in a “prayer circle” around the flag on school grounds.  At the time I was a self-proclaimed pagan, but I nevertheless joined in in the circle (everyone else were speaking Christian prayers, as I stayed silent) to show support.  Though this was on school property, it was not school sponsored, nor was I suggested to join (I did so of my own volition).  If your child or friend was praying alone (and not bothering others by praying exceptionally loudly) and got into “trouble” for do so (or simply asked to stop), understand that the government isn’t do that but the school official is.  That student has a right to do so, and as Americans we must stand up for our fellows’ Constitutional rights, no matter their age.

About Toni Goodman

Cultural Anthropology Major at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.
This entry was posted in Politicking. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Religion, Schools, and the First Amendment

  1. says:

    Nice work, Toni.

    I particularly like your examples you used. It really honed in your point. I too have witnessed the prayer circle at my high school (long ago) and sort of thought it was out of place. At the time, I supported the idea because I was a strong Christian, but I have recently lost my faith and can understand where you are coming from. I do think that government should not put the 10 commandments in any public, government owned building, and local governments should not open their meetings with prayer, but that is another blog for another day. Fantastic post.

    The Doctor

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