The Polite Liberal

A rant-free discussion of liberal philosophy and policies.


The Polite Liberal is the pseudonym of a "nontraditional" graduate student in mathematics (for nonacademics, "nontraditional," is a polite way of saying, "older than 25.") The Polite Liberal is an attempt to spur real policy debate, instead of partisan insults and conspiracy theories. Conservatives (and liberals, of course!) are welcome.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Secularism I -- Prayer in public schools

The first amendment to the US constitution begins:

Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;...

The fourteenth amendment, ratified in 1868, broadened the reach of the first, in its second sentence:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States...

Since US Public schools are state institutions, they cannot abridge their students' first amendment rights. In Engel v. Vitale (1962), the Supreme Court ruled that official prayer in public schools violates the US Constitution.

Since this is a matter of straightforward constitutional law, there isn't much room for debate about what the law allows. A more interesting question is: Is this a good idea? Should the constitution rule out prayer in schools?

There are several reasons why the answer is "yes", of which two are the most important:

(1) The government simply can't enforce belief in this fashion. By this I don't mean that it's immoral; I simply mean that it doesn't work. Compare the level of religion in the US, where school prayer has been banned for more than forty years, to that in the UK, where it's still prevalent.

Think about the Pledge of Allegiance for a moment. Every schoolchild recites it every day. Is it anything but a ritual at this point? Does it do anything to create real patriotism? Do you really want religion to be like the pledge--words recited mindlessly by children counting the seconds until lunch?

(2) In regions where there's a majority religion--and particularly if the majority is overwhelming--there has historically been an overwhelming temptation to try to use school prayer to enforce that religion. In such regions, the prayer tends not to be generic (although even generic prayers can be offensive to some faiths or to atheists); the prayers are instead explicitly Christian, or Protestant, or even Evangelical. The more specific such a prayer becomes, the more it tends to alienate those of other faiths. This sort of thing led to bloody wars in Europe; in the US it tends to conflate religious belief and citizenship in a manner that we should avoid at all costs.

The problem is that it's hard to be asked to swear against you conscience. Ask an atheist child to swear "by God", or a Jewish child to swear that "Jesus is Lord", and you're putting them in an impossible position of either lying or visibly standing apart from their class's (and their teacher's) beliefs. That isn't the proper business of a school.

To be honest, I don't understand the argument for prayer in schools--I'm an athiest born a dozen years post-Vitale. Could anyone with a reasonable pro- arguement post it in the comments?


Blogger The Polite Liberal said...

Spam deleted. Sorry it took so long!

5:14 PM  
Anonymous Stephen said...

"As long as there are tests there will always be Prayer in school"

I have no problem with not haveing a formal all-at-the-same-time school prayer. I do have a problem with people telling my daughter that she can't bow her head and say a prayer when she is about to eat her lunch. (this has happened) I think prayer is school is a ralling point because no one likes to be told what they are doing is wrong and/or stupid. Also, wether or not the law was intended this way it is always presented to Christians as, "no prayer, even personal prayers allowed." Seems to me that telling people they can not pray is the same violation as telling them they have to.

8:46 AM  
Blogger aircastlesinc said...

Hi! This is an interesting discussion. What I want to know is, if people are so willing not to have "prayer" in schools, why are they still so adamant that all children learn Christmas songs, color Easter bunnies, make Valentine's, etc. They try to use the excuse that these things have been "secularized" but I don't want my child to acquire a secularization of someone else's religion, I just want him to practice his own religion and go to school to learn English, math, science, etc. What exactly does Santa Clause and the Turkey and all that have to do with anything. Just calling them secular isn't enough.

4:57 PM  

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