Recent events have focused a great deal of attention on the issue of prayer and religion in public schools. Efforts in several states to display the Ten Commandments in public schools are combining with a pending Supreme Court case involving student-initiated and student-led prayer at high school sporting events to foster a national discussion on these and similar controversies.
Opponents of prayer in public schools, such as Michele Umansky, who explained her position in The Hatchet (The Christian right and religious freedom, March 30), claim that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits most religious expressions in public schools. This opinion is both incorrect and detrimental to our public school students.
The crux of the true meaning of the First Amendment is a prohibition of the establishment of a national faith by Congress. Additionally, the First Amendment prohibits governmental interference in the exercise of any religion. Umansky’s narrow interpretation of the Constitution would trample on the free exercise element of the First Amendment. When public schools permit students to pray in public – so long as they do not restrict this right to students of any particular faith and they do not coerce the participation of other students – they do not violate the First Amendment.
My more liberal peers would of course disagree, but I offer that prayer in public schools can be a tool to promote understanding and tolerance as well as moral behavior. By and large, a policy that would permit students of different faiths to express their religion in each other’s presence would promote an open and frank dialogue about faith. In a nation that embraces religious freedom and diversity as well as the value of communities, we do more harm than good by keeping our religious differences bottled up and out of public dialogue.
This principle extends to displays of the Ten Commandments in public schools. Regardless of a person’s faith, the Ten Commandments form the moral basis of mainstream American society. While I am certain that there are people who believe that murder is no crime and that adultery is an antiquated taboo, the vast majority of Americans and other peoples accept the principles expressed in the Ten Commandments as the foundation of civil society and public decency.
Ultimately, I suppose, the issue revolves around two questions. First, does displaying the Ten Commandments in public school violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment? Secondly, would students be subject to any harm through the display of the Ten Commandments?
The answer to the first question is no, especially if the Ten Commandments are presented as part of a larger display of historic documents. Displaying a document in a public space does not amount to the establishment of an official religion. The Declaration of Independence, itself enshrined in the National Archives, explicitly explains the belief of the founders that the natural rights of man are derived from God. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate open their sessions with a prayer. Public religious expression has been consistently upheld in these contexts, and it should be permitted in public education.
The answer to the second question is also no. As a Jew who grew up in the Buckle of the Bible Belt, Nashville, Tenn., I was exposed to frequent, public displays of religion by those not of my faith. Many of these involved prayers at athletic events and at other student activities. Rather than an exercise in isolation, I was given tremendous insight into my friends’ faiths and their values, just as I gave them insight into my life when I lead prayers from my tradition.
If our goals are better, more tolerant communities and positive public school environments, then prayer and religion can be uniquely meaningful tools. So long as school administrators and teachers do not give preferential treatment to one faith above others and as long as no students are forced to participate, then student-led prayer at public schools should be allowed. It can only make things better.
-The writer is a junior majoring in political science.