School prayer: What you can and can't do
Can school prayer be simplified? Perhaps. The whole issue is much complicated because of the passion and fervor of many individuals and groups who champion religion and prayer, and think it appropriate that they take place at anytime, anywhere, in the life of a believer.
No one contends that a prayerful person should not pray, or could not be entitled to pray, wherever that person chooses. The are very few people who are really anti-religion, or stand in opposition of having someone else participate in religion. The real issue boils down to one question: Under waht cicumstances may a student pray in the public school system?
Why is this a constitutional question? The First Amendment, in effect, says that no governmental authority, including school systems, may authorize, require or restrict the freedom of religion. That is a basic building block of the Constitution, which established and regulates our great nation.
Among those who first came to America, and those who put together the documents for our government, were believers and nonbelievers, those seeking religion and those escaping religion. The consensus and wisdom led to this portion of the First Amendment.
Most school systems derive some or all of their revenue from real-estate taxation. This means that every person who lives in our great country, who owns real estate, will be forced to pay money that will be utilized to develop and maintain public school systems. They must pay those taxes whether they approve of the school system or not. If they are required to pay those taxes, and then those taxes are used to promote religion, that becomes unconstitutional.
So, what can one do? Any student, at any time, can, to himself or herself, recite prayers, seek the guidance of the Lord, express appreciation or meditate. Any group of students can do likewise. Students from any religion may gather. Students without religion may gather. Prayer can be had in private, with others, during a moment of silence, on the playground, or wherever on school properties. There can be no constitutional restrictions on this right.
What can one not do? One may not interfere with the rights of others. One may not pray or conduct prayer sessions in a fashion to interfere with the normal school processes. One may not interfere with the rights of others to do similar things.
What can the school system do? The school system may permit the students to do the above items, subject to the restrictions recited above. The school system may not restrict prayer. The school system may not organize, lead or participate in prayer, for any religion. The school system may not permit its properties to be utilized in furtherance of prayer. This would include public address systems, blackboards, bulletin boards, classroom instructions, teacher requirements or any other thing which encourages, promotes or assists in the furtherance of religion. Some examples
Let's take some examples.
Putting these concepts together, why is it forbidden for an athletic coach to meet with his team, before or after an athletic event, to pray together?
Well, the coach is part of the school system. The members of the team are a part of the team and have equal rights, and if one member of the team is of a different religion, or of no religion, that individual will be prejudiced by being a part of a prayer group, or embarrassed by walking away from the prayer group.
These rules do restrict proselytizing or evangelizing, but only to the extent that such does not interfere with or bear upon the rights of others.
The views expressed here are not for, on behalf of, or against Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Bahai, Buddhism or any other religious faith. They are just the law of the land, constitutional requirements and prohibitions, and a level playing field for all who go to public schools and for all who pay for public schools. The authorization and the restrictions really do seem to be practical and realistic.
There is nothing un-American or illegal about testing the margins or the parameters of these rules, or even to attempt to modify them by legislation, or by having courts overturn previous decisions. The only requirement is that the public school systems and the students live by the rules that are announced by the courts. Any school system or any student who violates the rules may be punished. That is the American way.
Karl B. Friedman is a Birmingham lawyer who has handled numerous freedom of religion and other civil rights cases. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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