The Devilish Details of School Prayer

When it's an expression of a student's free speech, it is protected. When it's endorsed by officials, it's illegal. But a Supreme Court ruling muddies this boundary.

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In Craryville, New York, 8th grader A.M., co-president of her class, is barred by school officials from offering a prayer during her speech at an extra-curricular middle school ceremony. She sues to vindicate her First Amendment rights; a federal court deems censorship of the prayer reasonable and dismisses her claim.

In Cranston, Rhode Island, 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist is subjected to threats and public condemnation after successfully suing to remove an 8-foot-high prayer mural from the wall of her high school auditorium. Once again, teenagers display a better understanding of their rights than the adults who run their schools.

God's inclusion or exclusion from public school are perennial sources of complaint, confusion, and litigation, but defining the perimeters of religious expression in school is not all that complicated. Speaking for herself, a student generally has, or should have, the right to pray or disdain praying -- whether or not her profession of faith or skepticism offends other students, parents, or school officials. Speaking for school and state, officials have no rights; their power is subject to constitutional prohibitions on establishing religion and constitutional guarantees of individual religious freedom.

Formal school prayers have been officially unconstitutional for some 50 years. In 1962, in Engle v Vitale, the Supreme Court rightly struck down the New York State Regents prayer, which I was required to recite in grade school: "Almighty God we acknowledge our dependence upon thee and beg they blessings on us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen." This was supposed to be a non-sectarian prayer, but I always assumed it was a Christian prayer, simply because it didn't sound Jewish. 

The prayer mural in Jessica Ahlquist's school was more obviously sectarian, invoking "Heavenly Father." It had been installed (illegally) shortly after the Supreme Court's school prayer decision and for decades, it enjoyed majority support. But the long duration of a constitutional violation does not mitigate its seriousness and, as the Court in Ahlquist's case suggested, prohibitions on establishing religion are intended to protect minorities from majority faiths.

Jessica Ahlquist, an avowed atheist (raised Catholic), belongs to a most maligned irreligious minority; one state representative called her "an evil little thing," the New York Times reported. Perhaps she is so inherently "evil" that she was immune to the moralizing influence of the prayer mural, or perhaps prayer in school does not make students good.

I doubt that reciting the New York State Regents prayer throughout my childhood made me a good person or that not reciting it in high school made me a bad one, but compulsory recitation did help make me a civil libertarian. "It's not right to make somebody say something," I recall explaining to the school principal when I declined to say the Pledge of Allegiance in the 7th grade.

It's also "not right to prevent somebody from saying something," the federal court might have reminded A.M.'s principal after he excised a prayer from her speech. But in upholding the principal's power to censor her speech, the court was relying on a lamentable 1987 Supreme Court decision that greatly limited student speech rights, Hazelwood School District v Kuhlmeier. In Hazelwood, the Court held that a high school principal could summarily censor articles in a student newspaper describing the experiences of several students with pregnancy and divorce.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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