THIRTY years ago the Supreme Court said that, under the
Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, it is not the proper
business of government either to compose prayers or to sponsor
prayers for American children to recite.
That principle was reaffirmed and extended by the court June 24
when it ruled, in Lee v. Weisman, that a rabbi's invocation and
benediction at a public junior-high school graduation ceremony also
violated the First Amendment. "The government involvement with
religious activity in this case is pervasive, to the point of
creating a state-sponsored and state-directed religious exercise in
a public school," said Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the
majority of five.
Two Jewish parents in Providence, R.I., believed that prayers do
not belong in public schools, not even at graduation ceremonies,
and the fact that this time the clergyman happened to be a rabbi
made no difference to them. The case was argued before the Supreme
Court last November. To the obvious discomfiture of several
justices, the attorney for the school board maintained not only
that graduation prayer was permissible, but also that the
Constitution would even permit a state to design an official
religion, if it wished, provided no one was forced to practice the
established faith. For example, if the state of Utah were to decide
to establish the Mormon Church as its official state religion, he
saw no constitutional problem with that.
In fact, in the early days of America, quite a number of states
did have established churches. Seven of the original 13 states
actually barred Roman Catholics from holding public office. Ten of
them barred Jews.
But all that was before the United States Constitution - and the
Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment - came into being.
While the Constitution originally did not bind the states in
matters of religion, it did breathe a spirit of religious
toleration into the body politic. Article VI, for example, forbade
any religious test for national public office.
Our Founding Fathers were aware of the dire consequences to
those of minority faiths in European countries with established
churches. They knew that America had been settled in large measure
by people who were fleeing religious oppression in European
countries - Puritans, Quakers, Mennonites, Catholics, Baptists,
Lutherans, Huguenots, Jews, and many others. They didn't want that
to happen here. Yet, in the early days, it had begun to happen, for
example, in the Puritan theocracy in Massachusetts Bay Colony and
under the established Anglican Church in Virginia, where religious
dissenters were severely punished. …