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Prayer in School–clearing up the very clear law in the US

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A follow up to yesterday’s rant against the evangelical Rick Perry’s evangelical commercial about President Obama’s War on Religion. You’ll remember the key quote from the political spot: ““You don’t have to be in the pews every Sunday to know that there is something wrong with our country, when gays can openly serve in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” Besides being totally aggravating, Perry is actually wrong. TRC was in no place to highlight legal nuance yesterday, but today this is still bothering us, so here you go.

There is nothing keeping prayer out of schools in the United States. There is no law banning school prayer. At least, not in the manner that Rick Perry, and many other religious individuals in America think there is.  For some reason, it has become a de facto position of many evangelicals, and the Religious Right, and the Catholic Church, among others, that the Supreme Court banned prayer from public schools in the 1960s.

In the interest of people knowing what the hell they are talking about, here’s some clarification. Prayer is allowed in public schools. It has never been banned, and the right to pray in schools has been defended by the US Gov’t, the ACLU, the American Center for Law and Justice, etc, etc, etc. Prayer in school is legal and safe and well protected by the Constitution. Glad we cleared that up. Unfortunately, that point has been quite difficult to make to the public. Jeffrey Weiss at Real Clear Religion points out the key distinction that was made in the Supreme Court, and the sloppy coverage from the press that accompanies the infamous prayer in school decision.

No matter what one thinks of Perry’s candidacy, this one is another major “oops” for the campaign.
I admit, he’s not alone in making his error. The Associated Press’s analysis of the ad was critical, but also veered off the tracks and into the legal abyss.
Wrote AP political reporter Beth Fouhy: “The Supreme Court prohibited school prayer in two landmark decisions in 1962 and 1963, calling it an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.”
Which is sooo close to being correct. The court actually prohibited mandatory school prayer. And that one word makes all the difference. (See: Twain, Mark on lightning-bug vs. lightning.)
The truth is that kids pray in schools and on school grounds all the time. Many surely do it silently before the math midterms. But they also pray very publicly, in organized events. They do it plenty in Rick Perry’s Texas, as a matter of fact.

As an example, Weiss highlights See You at the Pole, a very public, Pray-to-Jesus-oriented event that happens once a year at schools around the country. I remember that event from my high school days. Such an activity is quite constitutional, as it should be.

And due to such events, every student who has ever gone to a public school is very much aware that prayer, quiet and self-contained or over-the-top public displays of hand-holding, is allowed. To suggest otherwise is to deceive. Is Rick Perry in favor of mandatory prayers in school? Or does he just not know that prayer is actually allowed in school? Or is he an idiot? Liar? These seem to be the options.

Again, Rick Perry’s political advert is not important. It’s a politician abusing religion and religious individuals to make hay in a primary election that Perry won’t win anyway. But sticking up for the actual legal rights of Americans is a worthy pursuit. Clarifying misrepresentations of the US Constitution matters a lot more than Perry’s forgetful campaign for President. No one may learn the difference, but that doesn’t make the difference any less important.


Written by Christopher ZF

December 8, 2011 at 10:40

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