School Prayer and Discrimination: The Civil Rights of Religious Minorities and Dissenters. By Frank S. Ravitch. Boston, Mass.: Northeastern University Press, 1999. 268 pp. $50.00.
Thinking outside of the box is seldom easy. As creatures of habit we tend to view issues in one way. We are challenged when forced to take a different approach from the norm. Ravitch challenges the student of church-state studies to view the issue of school prayer outside of the "box" of constitutional jurisprudence and view the conundrum in light of the reality of discrimination that is perpetuated upon religious minorities. His approach is refreshing. Instead of dealing with the First Amendment jargon of the "right to free exercise" and the "right to be free from the establishment of religion," Ravitch reminds the student that behind all of the talk and all of the strategizing, there are children who are at risk of suffering discrimination because they are viewed as not "belonging" to the majority. What fuels the author in his quest is the realization that unless society is convinced of the harm that can result from the imposition of school prayer in the public schools, all of the legal shenanigans mean absolutely nothing.
Ravitch, a civil-rights attorney, tries to break out of the mold of legal training and allow other disciplines to supplement the legal analysis of the subject. This work demonstrates that a working knowledge of a number of disciplines including law, history, sociology, and political science is necessary to comprehend the complexity of church-state issues. The issue of religious exercises in public schools is indeed a complex church-state matter demanding a multidisciplinary approach. While Ravitch the lawyer recognizes the complexity and has attempted to reach beyond his own expertise, it is interesting that at the end of the day the solution he advocates for the problem of discrimination in public schools resulting from religious exercises is yet another piece of legislation. Not that it is inappropriate; on the contrary he has used his legal acumen to provide yet another means to help solve the problem.
The historical perspective pointed out the potential for violence. The author reminded us of the Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844. These resulted from intolerance to non-Protestants, and he further suggests that a similar phenomenon underlies the modern reaction to cultural pluralism by the "born-again" Christians. Although language and strategies have changed, the message is the same. America is a "Christian nation"; those who do not follow the traditions and customs of such are outsiders. The case law is reviewed with an eve to the personal stories behind the cases. Descriptions of harassment and ridicule experienced by the plaintiffs led them to seek legal enforcement of the First Amendment, but the process often disillusioned them. They were alone in their struggle without funding or compensation.
When considering the political side, we are told that the campaign of the "Christian Right" is a threat to the religious pluralism and tolerance in public schools around the U.S. Ravitch points out that the leaders are well organized and intelligent and must be taken seriously. He reviews the Christian Right leadership, including everybody's favorite, Pat Robertson, along with Jay Sekulow, James Dobson, and others. Voter apathy being the greatest ally in their campaign to influence public school policy, the author suggests that this, combined with "stealth campaigning," has helped them achieve more influence than would ordinarily be the case. …