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Spotlight on public prayer

Two recent court decisions have once again put the spotlight on government-sponsored prayer. A federal court in Indiana issued an injunction to prevent a student-led, school-sponsored prayer at Greenwood High School’s graduation. And a federal court in Wisconsin held that, as enacted, the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional.

Not surprisingly, those who support public prayer have voiced their opposition to these rulings.However, it appears clear that proponents of public prayer seem to misunderstand several fundamental principles (or perhaps understand but choose to ignore them).

First, it is absolutely critical to recognize that neither judge in any way prohibits prayer. Americans, including students at Greenwood, remain free to pray. They can pray in their respective houses of worship, at home, at work, on the street corner, or even in school. A student can even choose to pray during Greenwood’s graduation ceremony.All the court rulings did was to remind us that the government cannot sponsor prayer, as doing so falls within the prohibitions of the establishment clause.

These rulings have no impact upon the free exercise clause, because people remain absolutely free to practice their individual religions; they simply cannot look to the government to promote or endorse their religion or prayer.Next, proponents of public prayer often argue that the First Amendment applies only to acts of Congress. Thus, for example, they argue that Greenwood’s prayer should be acceptable because it wasn’t an act of Congress. This line of reasoning, however, completely fails to acknowledge that the Supreme Court has ruled that certain protections of the Bill of Rights apply to the states, too, pursuant to the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Finally, proponents of public prayer argue that the objections of a minority should not be allowed to veto the will of a majority, expressed in a democratic vote (like that of Greenwood’s students). However, this argument fails to recognize that a core purpose of the Bill of Rights is to protect minorities from the “tyranny” of the majority. Would anyone suggest that a majority could vote to outlaw a particular religion or vote to rescind freedom of the press for a particular television news station or vote to make a certain class of people slaves? Of course not.

And finally, some questions for those who advocate for public prayer: Why does your religious observance require public prayer? Why is prayer in your home and place of worship insufficient? And why do you need the government – our government – to support your religious efforts?

Michael Wallack is an attorney at Wallack Somers & Haas. He also serves as president of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council.

Author:Michael Wallack
Source: IndyStar
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Kevin Flood wrote on May 11, 2010 4:44 PM: Michael, very nice post.

I am not sure why so many think that rulings such as the one Judge Barker handed down indicate that students are prohibited from praying at school, or school events. As you rightly pointed out, it simply prohibits the school, it’s administrators, teachers, coaches or anyone else from encouraging, sponsoring, supporting, leading or endorsing prayer at school-sponsored events. They MUST remain neutral.

I was a high school assistant coach in a public high school for many years. There were times when we would play a parochial school, and the players would ask if our team would like to join them in a prayer before the game. As coaches, we could not encourage or discourage their participation. Most of the time, we would point out to the other team that we had players who might not be of the Christian faith, (we had Jewish and Muslim students on our teams over the years) and usually the players from the other school would then recite a “generic” prayer simply asking “God” to help them to do their best and protect them and their opponents from injury. They would refrain from mentioning Jesus. These high school athletes showed more maturity and sensitivity than most adults I have seen who want to weigh in on this topic.

So these PUBLIC SCHOOL athletes could participate or not in the prayer, it was up to them. But again, we (the Public School COACHES) could NOT lead the prayer, force the kids to participate, or prevent them from participating. NO ONE has ever ruled that students cannot pray in school whenever they want. As I said, the school CANNOT appear to encourage or endorse praying in any way. Allowing prayer at a commencement has been rightly-ruled that the school is sanctioning or endorsing prayer, which it simply CAN NOT DO.

So all those who claim that Christianity is under attack from the courts, that students cannot prayer when they want, or that a vote by the majority should allow them to disregard the rights of a minority who might not want to take part in a school-sponsored prayer, simply don’t understand what the courts have CONTINUALLY ruled about prayer and the Establishment Clause.

If there are students at Greenwood High School who want to get together in a group to pray BEFORE the commencement, there is NO ONE saying they cannot do that. They just cannot have an organized prayer during the school-sponsored commencement ceremony. Maybe if some of “adults” realized that, this would not have become such an issue.


BrianK wrote on May 16, 2010 10:01 AM:As a Christian, I worry that public prayers cheapen & secularize my faith.

We saw this in the pretzel logic that led the Supreme Court to determine that the cross was a secular symbol in Salazar v Buono.

I also know that my faith has very specific injunctions against public prayer (Matt 6:1-15).

But for too long, Christians (myself included) have allowed those focused on wielding political power to serve as the public voice for our faith. Our faith is not under attack by the courts, nor is it threatened by the religious freedoms afforded under the Constitution – the threat to Christianity comes from those who would use it for political gain.

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One comment on “Spotlight on public prayer

  1. Mr. Wallack offers a well reasoned viewpoint and thoughtful comment on a topic that our council seems to misunderstand. I hope that including his commentary here opens minds instead of closing ranks and contributes to neighborly dialogue instead of incivility.

    I’ve also included a few posts from the IndyStar comments that contribute.

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