In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Trump said one of his goal was to put prayer back into schools. President Trump first announced his intent to protect a student’s right to pray in school in the Oval Office on January 16th, which was National Religious Freedom Day.
The 1st Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion has been limited by the
Supreme Court as a result of several rulings involving school prayer. The court rulings were based on the Establishment Clause of the very same amendment.
Although the Bill of Rights states that “Congress shall make no laws respecting the establishment of religion,” it also states in the same sentence that Congress shall make no laws “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Those two seemingly contradictory statements have been the source of many Supreme Court rulings regarding school prayer and Bible reading in schools.
Engel v Vitale was a 1962 ruling stating it was unconstitutional for state officials to compose an official school prayer and encourage its recitation in public schools.
In writing the dissenting opinion, Justice Potter Stewart wrote, “I think the Court has misapplied a great constitutional principle. I cannot see how an ‘official religion’ is established by letting those who want to say a prayer say it. On the contrary, I think that to deny the wish of these school children to join in reciting this prayer is to deny them the opportunity of sharing in the spiritual heritage of our Nation.” He noted that the Supreme Court opened its sessions with prayer.
Abington School District v Schempp was a 1963 ruling stating that school-sponsored Bible reading in public school was unconstitutional. Justice Potter Stewart was again the lone dissenting vote.
In a related 1st Amendment case, Tinker v Des Moines was a 1969 ruling on the free speech rights of students where the majority opinion stated, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
The 1971 Lemon v Kurtzman case was an 8-1 ruling stating that Pennsylvania’s public school’s reimbursement to private schools (Catholic) for teacher salaries was unconstitutional.
It resulted in the “Lemon Test,” named for the plaintiff, detailing legislation regarding religion. It has three benchmarks – 1) The statute must have a secular legislative purpose; 2) The primary effect must neither advance nor inhibit religion; and 3) The statute must not result in an “excessive government entanglement.” The Supreme Court has used the Lemon Test in other court cases.
Wallace v Jaffree was a 1985 ruling on an Alabama law that authorized teachers to set aside one minute at the start of each school day for a moment of “meditation or voluntary prayer.”
Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote the dissenting opinion. He stated that mentioning the word “prayer” does not promote a religion. Just as Justice Potter cited in his dissent to the 1962 Engel v Vitale ruling, Burger also noted that the opening of Congress and the Supreme Court started with a prayer by a publically funded chaplain.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) promotes the separation of church and state. The non-profit organization was co-founded by Anne Nicol Gaylor in 1976. Gaylor, who died in 2015 at age 88, was an American atheist and reproductive rights advocate. She authored the book, “Abortion Is A Blessing.”
In 2014, Ron Reagan, son the late president Ronald Reagan, appeared in a commercial asking for support for the FFRF. The foundation works to remove any semblance of religion from all public and government places, including schools.
The FFRF filed suit against the government in 2008 over the statute establishing the National Day of Prayer, which was started by President Truman in 1952. In 2010, a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional, but in 2011 the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed FFRF’s challenge to the National Day of Prayer because the organization didn’t have standing to challenge it. The National Day of Prayer is on May 7th.
So it was on National Religious Freedom Day last month, at the State of the Union Address on Tuesday, and again at the National Prayer Breakfast this morning that President Trump announced his plan to protect a student’s right to pray in school. Amen!
Image from: christianpost.com