Religion and Government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together. ― James Madison, Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822.
Teachers and administrators in a public school in Webster Parish, Louisiana, were sued by a student and her family for leading students in prayer, encouraging prayer and bible reading, and generally promoting the Christian God.
The Coles [those who brought the lawsuit] say that prayer over the loudspeaker each morning is just the beginning of an unconstitutional indoctrination of students that is promoted and supported by teachers, the principal, the superintendent and the school board.
“Virtually all school events — such as sports games, pep rallies, assemblies, and graduation ceremonies –include school-sponsored Christian prayer, religious messages and/or proselytizing,” according to the lawsuit filed with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union.
This is clearly unconstitutional. Neither a public school nor its representatives (teachers, administrators, or any other employee) can legally promote religion or religious beliefs (see Abington School District v. Schempp).
One of the parents who favored continuing the religious instruction in the public schools was Greg Lee.
…Greg Lee’s fifth-grade daughter was upset, not relieved. She and her friends took it upon themselves to pray anyway, Lee says.
Lee, a banker who also views himself as a servant of God, says he’s instilled his sense of deep faith in his children. It has always been a part of their life. They have always prayed — at church, at school, and whenever they feel the need to.
Lee’s daughter’s choice to “pray anyway,” was completely legal, and in fact, it is what should have been happening all along.
Despite the protestations of some on the Religious Right, it is legal for students to pray in school, as we shall see in a moment, which is all Greg Lee claims to want.
That is all Greg Lee and others in Webster Parish say they want. To fight for their longstanding beliefs. For the rights and souls of their daughters and sons — and America.
“If you begin to tell me that my children do not have the right to pray in school, then that’s an attack upon the relationship I have with my God and the relationship that they have with our God,” Lee explains.
If that’s all he wants. It’s true that every child, in every public school in America, already has the right to pray whenever they want to as long as they don’t disrupt the learning process and as long as they don’t harass their fellow students.
According to the Joint Statement of Current Law and Religion in the Public Schools, a document signed by 35 religious and civic groups,
Students have the right to pray individually or in groups or to discuss their religious views with their peers so long as they are not disruptive. Because the Establishment Clause does not apply to purely private speech, students enjoy the right to read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, pray before tests, and discuss religion with other willing student listeners. In the classroom students have the right to pray quietly except when required to be actively engaged in school activities (e.g., students may not decide to pray just as a teacher calls on them). In informal settings, such as the cafeteria or in the halls, students may pray either audibly or silently, subject to the same rules of order as apply to other speech in these locations. However, the right to engage in voluntary prayer does not include, for example, the right to have a captive audience listen or to compel other students to participate.
In other words, Greg Lee’s daughter has always had the right to pray in school.
Is that really what Lee and others who object to the lawsuit want? If so, then perhaps this is all just a misunderstanding about what the law requires and a careful reading of the Joint Statement of Current Law and Religion in the Public Schools will educate the parents and educators of Webster Parish, Louisiana.
It’s more likely, however, that they actually want their own brand of Christianity taught in their local public school. They might be willing to let others, who do not have the same beliefs, attend the school, and sit quietly while the local version of Christianity is being taught, but even with that, it would not be legal.
No, people like Lee and others quoted in the article, seem to believe that they have the right to impose their religious beliefs on a captive audience. They consider anything else an attack on their religion.
The questions spread far beyond this corner of Louisiana, and were raised by none other than President Donald Trump last summer.
“Schools should not be a place that drive out faith and religion, but that should welcome faith and religion with wide open, beautiful arms,” Trump says during a Faith and Freedom Coalition conference. “It’s time to put a stop to attacks on religion.”
But this is not an attack on religion. It is, however, an attack on their right to use government facilities and spokespersons in the form of public schools and its employees, to proselytize.
It’s clear that the President doesn’t understand the law either (no surprise there). Students are welcome to pray. No one has attacked religion. But our laws don’t allow a government entity to choose one religion over another, or to choose any religion over none. The Establishment Clause requires government, and its representatives, to remain neutral in the area of religion. That means no school sponsored prayer. No captive audience religious services.
I’m pretty sure they would be arguing the exact opposite if their child attended a public school which began each day with a prayer to Zeus, Marduk, or Allah.
Just as I was getting ready to post this blog entry, I read the following by Ed Brayton about the same lawsuit…
So if your beliefs are so deeply rooted, why do they need the government to force others to go along with them for you to feel satisfied? Your kids already have every right to pray in schools. They can prayer [sic] any time they want as long as they don’t disrupt the functioning of the school. They can pray 100 times a day if they want. You know what they can’t do? Force others to listen to it or participate in it.
And you know how easy it would be to get you to recognize that reality? One single Muslim prayer would do it.
- Religion in the Public Schools: A Road Map for Avoiding Lawsuits and Respecting Parents’ Legal Rights