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DAVID ROSMAN: Prayer in public schools crosses constitutional line

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 | 10:04 a.m. CDT

An individual praying in a public school is not the problem. A religious prayer sponsored by the school is the problem.

This is not an anti-religion or anti-Christian column. This is about crossing the constitutional Rubicon.

Twice this month those shores have been breached — that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” has been crossed. Once in Lumpkin County, Ga., and once in Fayette, Mo.

On the morning of May 1, a student at Lumpkin County High School had a question about faith and religion. Naturally, he went to a still-unidentified coach who was known to be a devout Christian, to get answers.

Stories from Atlanta's ABC and Fox news affiliates indicate that at some point the young man asked the coach to pray with him. Certainly a foot was placed in the river, but what happened next forced the conflict.

Text messages were passed among students that a prayer vigil was taking place. More than 50 students, four teachers and the coach participated — for up to six hours — with class abandoned by faculty and students using cellphones, which are prohibited by the student code of conduct.

Once the teachers attended the meeting, once the meeting was allowed to disrupt the school day and no action was taken by the school administration, once it was perceived that the school was sanctioning the vigil, the river was crossed and the “Establishment Clause” violated.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote the Lumpkin County school district with a formal complaint, stating that the prayer vigil continued in violation of constitutional law and court decisions.

On May 15, I wrote a pointed essay concerning the situation in Lumpkin County in my blog. And yes, there is more to this story.

On Friday mornings after school begins at Fayette High School, teacher Gwen Pope leads Christian prayers for students. The American Humanist Association wrote a four-page letter of complaint to the principal, teacher, superintendent of the Fayette schools and the president of the School Board, claiming “Students are encouraged to attend these sessions by an announcement made by the principal over the school’s intercom system.”

Citing County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 610 (1989), the AHA letter continued, “[T]he government [may] not advance, promote, affiliate with, endorse, prefer or favor any particular religion, it “‘may not favor religious belief over disbelief’ or ‘adopt a preference for the dissemination of religious ideas.’

“This includes any school-sponsored, -promoted or -affiliated religious activity in a public school.

A religious activity is ‘state-sponsored’ and therefore unconstitutional if ‘an objective observer . . . will perceive official school support for such religious [activity].’ Board of Educ. v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226, 249–50 (1990).”

Like the situation in Lumpkin County, this prayer meeting was a clear threat to and violation of the First Amendment. In both cases, they appear to be in violation of their respective state constitutions.

Those who claim that the government cannot prevent them from practicing their faith are mostly right; there are some exceptions, like tossing venomous snaking into the congregation. The Constitution is very specific in protecting the rights of all citizens and guests of this country to practice the religion of their choosing, including practicing no religion at all. If one wishes to pray, please do so.

The Constitution also is clear that the government, from local to federal, cannot promote or establish a religion. That is exactly what the two school districts have done. They both crossed the Rubicon.

I know the responses I will receive for this column will look like; I have already read some: “…the crap that comes out the supreme court contradicts the constitution which is by far the only decent piece of legislation we still have.” (sic)  

However, someone else reminded me of another point. If this were a Muslim prayer meeting, would the reaction from the religious-right be the same outrage concerning “freedom of religion” or condemnation of the Muslims for violating the First Amendment?

It is unfortunate that the Fayette story has been missed by national media. This is a conversation that needs to happen. If the United States was, is or becomes a Christian nation, our First Amendment rights would drown crossing the river.

Splash!

David Rosman is an editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. Questions? Contact opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.


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Comments

Ellis Smith May 22, 2013 | 3:08 p.m.

Apparently, crossing a constitutional Rebicon is a greater or lesser thing depending upon which of the first ten amendments is involved. For example, Amendment X (Tenth Amendment) can be and has been trampled upon for years now without any seeming concern.

All constitutional amendments are theoretically equal, but some are, it appears, more equal than others. :)

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 22, 2013 | 3:25 p.m.

I view both instances as forms of civil disobedience and I'm kinda proud of those students (and teachers). Yes, I realize some teachers can be fired over such a thing, but what (pray tell) will you do with all those pesky students if they persist?

Cut school funding?
Expel them?
Arrest them for.....what?
Send in a drone?

Wish I was young and in HS school again, 'cause I'd surely instigate an answer to this question.

I'd kinda like to see this happen......

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 22, 2013 | 3:30 p.m.

PS: Should prayer rooms be allowed in public schools so that Islamic students can say their prayers on time with the formality that is required?

Or should they not be allowed?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 22, 2013 | 4:48 p.m.

Michael:

Obviously (Obamaviously), send in a drone! May some of us be allowed to PROGRAM the drone? If so, it will fly up someone's hoo-hoo.

In Egypt it is illegal to build and operate a factory unless there is a mosque built within the factory. In my experience this tends to be the cleanest place in a factory, but in some cases that's not saying much. Ten percent of the Egyptian population is Christian, but there's no requirement for a place in the factory for them to worship.

The standard work week is six days at 8 hours/day. It takes that long in Egypt to make the same amount of product that can be made in five days at 8 hours/day in the United States, Canada, Republic of Mexico, Argentina, Chile or Colombia. Why? Poor organization and total lack of motivation.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 22, 2013 | 5:54 p.m.

Well, Rosman is certainly evangelical about his atheism.

Two articles on atheism this week. I will have to admit I'm awaiting another Missourian article entitled: "Who are the American nuns?"

It will prolly be a longer list; I won't know any of them, tho.

(Report Comment)

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