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Terrorism sparks debates on school prayer

By The Associated Press,
freedomforum.org staff

10.13.01

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Amid the shock of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many Americans have turned to prayer.

The topic of prayer quickly spread throughout the news media as America's leaders, most notably President Bush (who read Psalm 23 while standing near the World Trade Center ruins), beseeched the nation to pray for healing.

Suddenly, God is in the spotlight, and America is reassessing the role of prayer in their lives and in the lives of their children.

And in some cases, public school officials are explaining that prayer has never been banned outright from schools — it's a question of how it's done: by whom and under what circumstances.

  • In Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, nearly 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no public school could sponsor or support prayer, Jim Korver was impressed to hear it endorsed by school officials on an early Sept. 11 morning.

    The Falls Christian Academy principal was attending an accreditation workshop at Lake City High School with other local school administrators when news of the terrorist attacks halted their planned activities.

    While transfixed eyes watched as tragedy unfolded on television, Korver heard several declarations for a need to pray in the very place where corporate prayer is deemed unconstitutional.

    "It was a sadness in my heart and mind that it has taken a national tragedy for us to say we need to pray wherever we are," Korver said. "I think it should be a lesson that we should always pray, and that prayer belongs everywhere."

    Local businesses, including public schools, encouraged national solidarity with messages of "God Bless America" on their readerboards. Moments of silence were held before school football games. Students grasped hands around the flagpole in fervent prayer.

    "It's become more politically correct, that's for sure," said Ken Wilde, senior pastor of Capital Christian Center in Boise and director of the National Prayer Center in Washington, D.C.

    Wilde was in the nation's capital on Sept. 11, coordinating prayer teams to pray with and for senators, congressmen and other national leaders. Not one congressman or senator opposed any kind of prayer at that time, he said.

    "Everybody was very supportive," said Wilde, who also is a former schoolteacher in Gooding. "It's brought a new level of importance of prayer and faith back in our government and back into our leaders."

    How this new attention to prayer fits within the school systems is up for much discussion. What is largely misunderstood, however, is the latitude prayer is already allowed in schools by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

    "There can be no state-sponsored prayer in schools, period," said Coeur d'Alene attorney Charles Dodson, who represents eight school districts in northern Idaho.

    "However, I don't care how many zealots scream and holler saying we need to put prayer back in school, prayer has always been in schools. There is nothing in the Constitution that says a student cannot pray in school."

    "The misnomer is that prayer is excluded from schools," agreed Coeur d'Alene School District Superintendent David Rawls. "Kids can pray; we're just really careful about organized prayer in school."

    Most school districts including Post Falls, Lakeland and Coeur d'Alene enjoy limited open forum status, meaning non-curriculum groups can meet on school grounds, such as chess clubs or Christian clubs like First Priority.

    Opportunities for school-wide prayer arise in moments of silence, which school officials reserve for tragic events like a student death or the Sept. 11 attacks.

    "It allows for those who want to pray, collect their thoughts and think about what went on," said Post Falls High School Principal John Billetz. "If they want to sit there and read, that's fine, too."

    But while opportunities to pray are certainly available, there are even more opportunities to misinterpret the law, Dodson said.

    "Tons of it. It's called factual circumstances," he said. "If a teacher says, 'Give me a moment,' and it's obvious the teacher is praying, is that state sponsored? Did the district authorize it? It's a factual question, and that's why there are so many different cases on the issue of separation of church and state.

    "People don't like to talk about this, especially attorneys, because it's a real nebulous area."

    The most recent case concerning prayer in schools was last year's Santa Fe v. Doe, in which the Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not allow student-led prayer before football games.

    The central question in the case was whether it is a violation of the Constitution for a public school district to allow such prayers, even if school officials do not start the prayers.

    Locally, Rawls received a call shortly after Sept. 11 from a parent upset that her son was required to sing the national anthem in his classroom, and wanted him pulled from that class. Even the moment of silence during a football game on the Friday after the attacks was potentially offensive, Rawls said.

    "We have a nation that says personal freedom is the supreme value," Rawls said. "We say 'One nation under God,' but we also say we're established with personal freedom as our fundamental value."

    Though rarely seen, prayer is very much legal within public schools. But some believe it should take a more prominent role in education, especially in light of recent events.

    "If you look biblically, anytime you remove a God activity like prayer out of a society, it affects the natural life of a society," Wilde said. "Somehow we've got to get back to a place where we're saying we are a Judeo-Christian society, Therefore we need to at least give ample opportunity for young people to pray."

    Korver considers it a school's duty to train children in the ways of God, and prayer should be included considering the role schools play in a child's life.

    "We have them 30 hours a week, more than the parents do in reality, and 30 times more than the church," Korver said. "More than any other institution in the world, the school has that unique opportunity with the next generation."

    Just as Japan is considered a Buddhist nation or India a Hindu nation, around the world America is largely regarded as a Christian nation, Wilde said.

    "It's not uncommon for nations to be associated with a religious bent," he added.

    "We are not officially a Christian nation," Dodson argued. "There is no governmentally adopted religion or particular religious faith, and that is a good thing because it provides diversity. That's the glory of the First Amendment."

    And that is the crux of the matter, according to school administrators, which is why corporate school prayer opportunities are generically labeled "moments of silence."

    "If there was a way to do prayer in school, I'm all for that. I just don't know how you would with so many diverse religions," Billetz said.

    "Being a Catholic, I think Catholicism is correct. I'm sure Mormons think LDS is correct. So the only way you could possibly do it is every day say a different prayer from a different religion, and I don't think that's possible."

    "Prayer is prayer," Korver said. "It's to whom we speak that's the important issue. It's a bogus argument to be worried about denominationalism."

    Wilde referred to Congress, which consists primarily of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, as a governmental model of what public schools could be.

    "Both the Senate and the House have chaplains, and they pray every day to begin the session," Wilde said. "They do not pray in the name of Allah or the name of Buddha. They pray in the name of Christ."

    If Congress sets that kind of standard, then it's unclear why schools must constantly adapt to the wax and wane of church-and-state legal questions.

    "I think the difference is you're dealing with adults who can walk out of a room if they choose," suggested Post Falls School District Superintendent Jerry Keane.

    "I don't think the Supreme Court has ever addressed whether or not they feel Congress has the authority to do that as a 'government-sponsored prayer,"' Dodson said. "My legal perspective is I would defer to the Supreme Court on a ruling if that issue is ever brought before them. How's that for a lawyer-like answer?"

    There's no longer room for yesterday's state-mandated prayer in a nation that greatly values its individuality. But traumatic events, like the terrorism on Sept. 11, have given many Americans pause to consider the power and place of prayer in society.

    "I think the move spiritually is happening, and that's probably a better move than legislating it," Wilde said. "You legislate it and it's not from the heart, it's from the law. If we allow God to move, it will be done in people's hearts rather than just people's minds."

  • In Columbia, S.C., a plan to give students a moment of silent prayer rather than just a moment of silence is unlikely to pass a constitutional challenge, a law professor said.

    "This one is so clear," said Eldon Wedlock, a constitutional law professor at the University of South Carolina. "It flies in the face of a 1985 Supreme Court decision."

    The plan was outlined on Oct. 10 by Republican state House members.

    "It's very difficult for me as a legislator to start every day with a moment of prayer and then turn around and tell the students they can't," said Assistant House Majority Leader Rita Allison of Lyman. "It will be more than we have now. It gives students what we feel is their constitutional right."

    Such a change could create a legal tangle for the state's school boards, said Paul Krohne, executive director of the South Carolina School Boards Association.

    "This piece of legislation, as I understand it, has question marks all over it in terms of constitutionality," Krohne said. "I think we're going to have to spend some time looking at it."

    The proposed change comes as people and institutions around the nation are confronted with increasing calls to prayer in the wake of the terrorist attacks and the nation's military response to them.

    In Wallace v. Jaffree, the U.S. Supreme Court decided 6-3 that a moment of "silent meditation or voluntary prayer" in Alabama schools was unconstitutional. "It was clear from legislative history that the purpose of the statute was to introduce prayer into schools," Wedlock said. "That's an impermissible purpose."

    While school board members might have their own opinions on school-sponsored prayer, Krohne said, the court-tested ban on it "still is the law of the land."

    House Majority Leader Rick Quinn of Columbia, another prominent backer of the change, said he expects challenges from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups. But he stressed the Constitution intends for people to have "freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."

    Prayer should be "something that can be said in public schools. Right now it's a dirty word, and that's wrong," Quinn said.

    "We can no longer sit idly by and suffer from the threats and the intimidations of the ACLU and other organizations that seek to cleanse our governmental institutions of any face of practicing religion," added Rep. Jim Klauber of Greenwood, who is seeking the 3rd District congressional seat. "It's time we do the right thing, and we begin to push for a free exercise of religion throughout our state government."

    Allison said the others said the change in wording would simply remind people that they have the right to pray during that moment of silence.

    "People don't know we can pray," Allison said. "It is specifying and clarifying for teachers and parents."

    Principals said that confusion doesn't exist at their schools.

    "We've never used the term 'moment of silence to pray,' but I think it's understood that it's a moment to pray or reflect," said Steve Gambrell, principal of D.R. Hill Middle School in Duncan, where school days and school events begin with a moment of silence. "No one has expressed that concern to me, but if that would clear it up, I see no harm in it."

    Harvey Dailey, principal of Broome High School in Spartanburg, said doesn't think a change in wording will make a difference in the prayer habits of students.

    "If a person is that involved in their religion, they don't need a moment of silence to pray," Dailey said. "If you waited for a moment of silence in this noisy world, you'd never get it."

  • In Georgia, Pulaski County won't allow prayer in its three public schools after all.

    During an Oct. 9 Board of Education meeting in Hawkinsville, school board Chairman Roger Cannon rescinded his motion to reinstate prayer in the schools. The board had unanimously voted Sept. 24 to bring prayer back.

    Cannon said the decision not to change the board's policy does not mean he or the board has changed its mind about the need for prayer in wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

    School Superintendent Steve Smith voiced concern about the policy change, saying the board was violating the First Amendment by calling for prayer in public schools.

    He said to vote for such a policy would violate the board members' oath to support and uphold the Constitution.

    "I think we should have prayer, but legally," said Vice Chairman Walter Freeney.

    Related

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    Despite earlier indications that justices would allow more religious involvement, court adopts separationist stance in public-school prayer case.  06.19.00

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    State lawmakers consider school-prayer proposals
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