Of Prayer, Public Schools and the Constitution: Courageous South Carolina Students Are Teaching Us All a Less in Freedom

By Jones, Neal R. | Church & State, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Of Prayer, Public Schools and the Constitution: Courageous South Carolina Students Are Teaching Us All a Less in Freedom


Jones, Neal R., Church & State


The wall of separation between church and state protects the integrity of both government and religion. It is important to say this during this week of our nation's independence because I am sorry to say that the Religious Right has conducted a largely successful misinformation campaign convincing many Americans of many things that simply aren't true.

For example, the Religious Right has sold the myth that the Founding Fathers created a Christian nation. The fact is that they founded a government that is secular and that takes a neutral stance toward religion, neither promoting nor prohibiting religious beliefs and practices. The Constitution makes no mention of God, Jesus, the Bible or Christianity.

Article VI explicitly prohibits religious tests for public office, which means that you don't have to be a Christian or even religious to hold office ... though it would certainly enhance your ability to win election if you were, especially in places like South Carolina. And the First Amendment bars government from respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

We may be a nation of Christians, but we are not a Christian nation. In fact, the Founding Fathers officially said so in the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated with the Muslim leaders of North Africa during President Washington's term, unanimously approved by the Senate and signed by President Adams. It states, "As the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion, it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, and tranquility of Muslims."

Nowhere has the attack on the wall of separation between church and state been more persistent than in our public schools. The Religious Right has doggedly tried to prevent the teaching of evolution and promote the teaching of creationism and "intelligent design" as science, divert public funds to private religious schools with vouchers and tuition tax-credit schemes and force students of any and no religion to read the Bible and pray in class, at school assemblies, at graduation and at ball games.

I've always wanted to deliver an invocation at a football game--not a mushy, feel-good prayer about sportsmanship and the safety of the players, but a genuine, heart-felt prayer:

"O holy God, who rules the football field as surely as the heavens and who created the pig which supplied the pigskin we are about to kick today, use our team as an instrument of thy will as thou smite thine enemies, our opponents, with the full fury of thy holy wrath. May our cheerleaders shout hallelujah and hosanna as thy righteous team grinds thine enemies in the dirt and renders them scoreless. During halftime, visit upon them plague, pestilence and jock itch. So that we shall not see their faces in the playoffs, may thou fling their remains into the eternal fiery pit, where they shall dwell with the humiliation of defeat forever and ever. We pray in the name of a gracious, just and good God. Amen."

Now that's a football prayer!

If you tell a lie often enough and long enough, many people will begin to believe it. The Religious Right has told the lie often and long--for the past 50 years to be exact--that the Supreme Court outlawed prayer in public schools. This is absolutely not true.

In its 1962 Engel v. Vitale decision, the Court outlawed government-sponsored, coercive, public prayers, not voluntary, individual prayers. Any person at any time at any place can pray on his or her own. Even if school officials wanted to, I am not sure how they could possibly prevent students or teachers from praying on their own. As long as there are tests, it's a safe bet that students will pray.

The Engel case involved a New York school board that required all students to recite out loud a prayer written by the state. The case was brought by Jewish and Unitarian parents who did not want their children forced to pray. …

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