Public Prayer in Its Place

Supreme Court straightens the church-state wall

The issue is heartfelt on both sides: Some parents want to uplift their children through public prayer at government-run schools, while other parents fear their children might be forced to accept someone else's religious beliefs.

But the US Supreme Court has come down decidedly on the side of keeping public schools from sponsoring any "particular" practice of public prayer.

The court's reasoning is instructive for all communities that face such debates. In rejecting officially sanctioned public prayers at high school football games in a Texas town, the 6-3 majority made the point that such a practice runs the danger of excluding some citizens from civic life - even if the motive is not to proselytize.

"It sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens for the majority.

That argument may be difficult to swallow in a country that remains predominately Christian. Polls show Americans favor student-initiated prayer at public school events. The court, with an eye more inclined to the Constitution than polls, nonetheless patched up the sometimes-porous wall between church and state.

Even though students would lead the prayers, the court said their words would not be "private" speech, as supporters of the Texas policy argued. Rather, they'd speak under official supervision, using school equipment, making their words "subject to particular regulations that confine the content and topic of the student's message."

The high court has had to do this kind of hair-splitting in many of its church-state decisions over the decades. But with each decision, Americans learn more about the wise balance between religion and government that helps keep both of them from eroding the other.

The spiritual desire to understand God does not need government help, and none of the many services of government - our collective embrace of others' needs - should be steered by adherents of a particular religion. The court wisely noted that the Constitution does not "prohibit any public school student from voluntarily praying at any time before, during, or after the school day."

The decision does not mean that public prayer has no place in public forums. It's ruled out only when government in some way approves the type of prayer. Indeed, the strong desire to place prayer in schools can be channeled into private settings such as summer camps or neighborhood ball games.

The desire to help children by teaching them to pray in community settings does not need to step on the First Amendment. That desire will find its own safe place, without offending others.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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