Prayer is a good thing. It shadowed America’s founders and still today underpins the very American tradition of Thanksgiving.
Moreover, character education should be a part of every youth athletic program in the country.
But prayer cannot be government-led — not even the most devout should want that — and there are myriad other ways to instill character in our young in public settings.
This is both the lesson and the solution to a suddenly roiling controversy over coaches having led their football players in prayer this past season at Cameron High School, about 50 miles northeast of Kansas City.
Even more American than Thanksgiving is the First Amendment, which is unique among the world’s nations and which guarantees both the free exercise of religion and the freedom from government imposition of religion.
The Establishment Clause that restricts government involvement in religion and the Free Exercise Clause that guarantees an individual’s freedom of conscience need not be in conflict, as they seem to be in this nationally watched imbroglio in little Cameron, Missouri.
It’s pretty simple, really: Government officials — yes, including public school coaches and administrators — should not be leading prayers within the government’s sphere, but neither can students and townsfolk be prohibited from organic and unimposing expressions of faith. Even on a public football field before or after a game.
The prayers at Cameron this season inspired more than just the players. Parents, fans and residents of the town of 7,000 joined in. That’s wonderful.
We’d just suggest, and we’re confident the courts would require, that next season if there’s any praying going on after games that it be led by students flexing their free-exercise muscles — not government employees, however well-intended.
After a few days of written warnings from the Freedom From Religion Foundation — despite no aggrieved plaintiff having come forward — here’s to the school board and superintendent putting a swift end to the controversy.
Just remind district employees they are not to lead students in prayer in their official capacities. And for coaches, that’s nearly all the time.
While reasonable accommodations must be made for it, even voluntary prayer in school settings must be kept at arm’s length from government involvement, and officials must be assiduous in making sure that no student feels pressured to participate.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that school officials “may not place the student dissenter in the dilemma of participating or protesting.”
This isn’t anti-religion. It’s pro-freedom. And it just happens to be the state of constitutional law.
In both perception and fact, prayer in the realm of public schools must be free and not forced upon anyone, either by those praying or those acting with state authority.
These two often-competing constitutional clauses can be accommodated. It’s just that in this particular situation, coaches must relinquish their natural leadership roles.
Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.