It’s astonishing to me that we’re still arguing about prayer in public schools. I would have thought that this was a resolved issue — schools can neither sponsor religious expression, nor prohibit voluntary religious expression on the part of students that does not interfere with instructional activity. But, some people just don’t get it. So, the Illinois Legislature changed a law schools to have a moment at the beginning of class for “silent prayer or reflection” to instead require that the teacher have such a moment of silence. And it has earned the state (and a local school district) a lawsuit for its officiousness.
This isn’t hard, people. A school can neither sponsor nor prohibit voluntary religious expression.
Examples of prohibiting religious expression include:
- Not allowing students to form clubs organized around religion
- Punishing students for prayer or Bible study during non-class time
- Dress codes targeting clothing expressing religious statements
Examples of sponsoring religious expression include:
- Invocations of God during school ceremonies
- Teaching religious doctrine in science or health class
- Telling students that it’s okay to use instructional time for prayer
A public school can’t do any of the above.
Yes, there are some closer calls than this. What if a student includes an invocation of God when giving a commencement speech? (I think she should be allowed to do so without penalty; she doesn’t speak for the school.) What if a school’s code of conduct requires students to not discriminate against one another on the basis of sexual orientation, and a student wears a T-shirt invoking particular Biblical passages condemning homosexuality? (The student is properly subject to discipline; the policy does not target religion.) What if the Bible study club wants to use a classroom during the lunch period to meet and have a religious activity? (No dice; public facilities cannot support private religious activity — but at the same time, the Bible study club can meet in an area generally open to the student body, like a lunchroom, and school employees should permit them to meet and punish other students who might try to disrupt the meeting.)
But the “moment of silence” is not a close call. It is a transparent film over a public school’s official encouragement of students to pray. Adding the option of “silent meditation” does not ameliorate the fact that the school is using instructional time to encourage religious activity. It’s readily apparent that Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, Taoists, Shintoists, and atheists are not asking for this to be included in class time, and a reasonable student would infer that the school is making an official accommodation to people who want to pray to Jehovah and that the opportunity for non-devotional “meditation” is not the reason that the moment of silence is taking place. For that reason, it’s an establishment of religion and a violation of the Constitution.
I realize this is not the greatest threat to liberty that we face in this country. But it’s important because while small, it represents another step down a path leading to a very bad destination.