The School Prayer Decisions

By Marshall, William P. | Constitutional Commentary, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The School Prayer Decisions


Marshall, William P., Constitutional Commentary


Shortly after the school prayer decisions,(1) the crime rate escalated and the counter-culture blossomed. This is not, I have been told, a simple coincidence. After all, how could anybody mug a pedestrian, smoke marijuana, or enjoy promiscuous sex after starting each school day with "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country."?(2) No school prayer--no moral fiber.(3) It's that simple.(4) The causal relationship is so obvious and those asserting the relationship should not be expected to advance empirical proof.(5)

Okay. So, in accord with this Symposium's purpose in determining the effects of obliterating a constitutional event, the first thing we can establish is that the '60s would not have happened if the Supreme Court had not abolished school prayer in Engel v. Vitale(6) and Abington School District v. Schempp.(7)

Neither would a lot of post-'60s nonsense that has been done in the name of those cases. Without Engel and Schempp, a hapless and clueless bureaucrat would not have even entertained the thought that kids should be prevented from privately praying on the school bus or in the lunch room. This would have been good for the child and great for the bureaucrat but disastrous for the anti-politically correct crowd whose favorite ploy is to use these one or two scattered instances to fault public education (and the Supreme Court) as godless. Never mind that the school prayer decisions did not mandate, or even condone, the bureaucrats' decisions.

So along with the '60s, also gone is a lot of right wing rhetoric. Your neighbors may not be around either. Most folks who support prayer in school generally support only one kind of prayer -- that of their own denomination. Many persons have objections to their children being subject to the prayers of other religions, and for some this objection is based on religious compulsion -- it is a sin in some traditions to be exposed to another's prayer. So those who are in the religious minority in one community may move to another community where they can be in he majority.(8) But that's okay, a little balkanization never hurt anybody (except the Balkans) and, besides, the coalescing of homogeneous groups occurs naturally anyway.

But how would upholding school prayer have affected religion? Some might say not very much. Justice Douglas's 1952 assertion that "[w]e are a religious people,"(9) is still true today. Religion in America, according to reliable reports, is flourishing.(10) Moreover, as a matter of common sense, one would think that there can be very little, if any, real spirituality in the rote presentation of 25 or so words at the beginning of the school day. The prayer in Engel, after all, was described quite accurately as being little more than "a pathetically vacuous assertion of piety."(11) Indeed, some might argue that if school prayer were to have any effect on religion at all, that effect would be negative. Since the days of Roger Williams, religious leaders have contended that no greater harm can come to religion than when it is placed in the hands of the state.(12)

Still, we do live in an age of high speed communication and short attention spans. It may be that the American mind is so attuned to the thirty second commercial(13) that there can be no better way to communicate to our nation's youth the importance of God, love, caring, humility, morality, spirituality, and sacrifice than through a brief religious out-take at the start of the school day. And if the school prayer activists believe that vacuity does not harm the religious enterprise, who am I to judge?(14)

Actually, where the world would really change is in politics. Can you imagine school board elections in a world where school prayer is constitutional? Hillary Clinton versus Rudolph Giuliani would be nowhere near as colorful--nor as much fun. Each school board candidate could propose his or her own prayer, pick his or her sacred text, and then accuse the opposition, with theological thunder, of being in the hip pocket of the godless, the misbegotten, and the profane. …

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