Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Latest Decision on Prayer in School

School prayer came to the Supreme Court again yesterday; and, even if it involved a rather narrow issue of practice, it deserves to be examined in terms of its possible implications. Here is how Associated Press Writer Jesse J. Holland reported the story:

Coach Marcus Borden used to bow his head and drop to one knee when his football team prayed. But the Supreme Court on Monday ended the practice when it refused to hear the high school coach's appeal of a school district ban on employees joining a student-led prayer.

The decision on the case from New Jersey could add another restriction on prayer in schools, advocates said.

"We've become so politically correct in terms of how we deal with religion that it's being pretty severely limited in schools right now, and individuals suffer," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization that focuses on First Amendment and religious freedom issues.

But Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said some parents had complained about Borden leading prayers before the East Brunswick, N.J., school district ordered him to stop and banned all staff members from joining in student-led prayer.

"The bottom line is people in positions of authority, like a coach, have to be extremely careful about trying to promote their ideas, or implying that if you don't pray, you may not play," Lynn said.

Lynn's point is well taken, and it seems to have had the appropriate persuasive effect on the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, another one of his remarks is a bit more disquieting:

Coaches are not supposed to be promoting religion; that's up to students and parents and pastors.

Whether or not he realized it, this sentence carries the strong connotation that "students and parents and pastors" may promote their religion in a public school system, which is a far more serious issue of separation of church and state than a football coach with strong religious convictions. On the surface it appears to endorse student-led prayer as long as it is strictly a student activity; but this raises the same problem of authority brought before the Supreme Court. It just happens to be the authority of all the students on the team and may therefore be just as influential in determining who gets to play. Were any of the team members Muslim or Jewish (or, for that matter, Catholic); and, if they were on the team, did they spend any time off the bench?

The real bottom line is that the only place for religion in a public school is in a social studies curriculum for comparative non-judgmental analysis of religious beliefs and practices. The promotion of any religion is no more the domain of "students and parents and pastors" than it is subject to the authority of teachers and coaches. My guess is that Lynn did not realize the dangerous connotation of his sentence; but it is the sort of proposition that can have ugly repercussions, particularly in communities that take their religious beliefs very seriously outside the walls of any public institutions.

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