First, President Reagan put in another pitch for voluntary prayer in the public schools in his recent State of the Union address.
And the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will consider reinstating a New Jersey law, struck down by lower courts, that provided daily moments of silence in public schools. The justices will hear arguments in the case next fall.
Successive generations of Americans, reaching back to the Mayflower pilgrims, have invoked the aid of God for their daily protection and welfare … in drafting the Constitution … in legislative deliberations … on their coins – and from the very beginning in their schools.
But in 1962, 170 years after adoption of the Bill of Rights, six justices of the Supreme Court reversed the traditional meaning of the First Amendment and generations of custom in a controversial ruling that it was unconstitutional for students to join in a brief officially sponsored, non-denominational prayer.
Today, polls show the people favor prayer in the classrooms by wide margins. But their Supreme Court says “no” and a divided Congress thus far has failed to initiate a constitutional amendment for the states to consider.
A Gallup poll in 1982 indicated that among persons acquainted with the prayer issue, 79 percent favored President Reagan’s proposed prayer amendment.
A Media General-Associated Press poll in 1985 showed 87 percent favored a moment of silence in school in which students could pray if they wished. If students were encouraged to pray during the silence, 63 percent still would support it.
Reagan’s efforts for vocal prayer in the schools have not fared well. Sen, Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah previously has proposed a moment of silence as a compromise with a better chance of winning approval.
The Supreme Court’s decision to study the validity of New Jersey’s moment-of-silence law comes two years after the justices strongly reaffirmed the court’s 1962 ban of organized prayer in public schools.That ban did not apply to silent prayers in public schools.
However, in 1985 the court outlawed daily moments of silence if students are encouraged to pray during that time. The justices voted 6-3 to strike down an Alabama law that allowed such periods for “meditation or voluntary prayer.”
It has been pointed out though, that the court did not rule all moment-of-silence laws invalid. Indeed it indicated that if a statute does not mention “prayer” – and if state legislators do not intend the law to endorse or promote prayer – it is valid.
That offers a ray of hope, but wouldn’t it be hypocritical to rule out the mention of prayer, the very motivation for the legislation? Teachers don’t need to promote prayer of course, but what would be wrong with explaining options open to students in use of the moments of silence?
I phoned Rex E. Lee, former U. S. solicitor general who represented the administration before the Supreme Court, and was extremely interested in two comments he made on the school prayer issue.
Lee, a professor at the Brigham Young University Law School after a four-year leave for his government service, said in his judgment the case for constitutionality of a daily moment of silence is much stronger than for vocal prayer proposals.
He also noted that one of the significant arguments for a moment of silence is that it doesn’t “mark” or “identify” students with attitudes or beliefs they may prefer to keep private – a good point since this is one of the controversial matters raised by school prayer opponents.
The issue of prayer in the schools, as we know it today, has been with us for a quarter century now, ever since the 1962 High Court ruling.
Prayer and other spiritual values were among the corner-stones on which America was founded. They are part of our national heritage. The people want some form of voluntary school prayer perpetuated, as polls repeatedly indicate.
It’s time for the branches of government to harmonize their efforts to bring about an acceptable solution. It seems a bit ridiculous that we have allowed prayer, of all subjects, to be a center of controversy for so long.