Religion 101

There seems to be a rather widespread misunderstanding regarding the actual underlying motivations of people who object to schools leading prayers and courts posting copies of the Ten Commandments, or who protest against “under God” being in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” being on our money, and so forth.

Lots of people seem to harbor the impression that such complainers are just bad sports who need to stop whining and get over it. They complain, in turn, that this country has gotten entirely too “P.C.” (“politically correct”), and that society has gone too far in worrying about not “offending” people — as if the primary objection to posting the Ten Commandments in schoolhouses and courthouses, teacher-led or administration-approved school prayer, and the like came down to just a matter of such things being potentially “offensive” to some thin-skinned types.

But to those who are doing the complaining and objecting to and protesting against such controversial matters, it has nothing to with potential for causing “offense,” and everything to do with not breaking the law or violating the U.S. Constitution.

Case in point: in the news just last week, an Arkansas school district recently cancelled its elementary schools’ sixth-grade graduation ceremonies in the wake of a controversy over prayers, which were to have been included in the official ceremonies.

An anonymous complaint from a parent objecting to the planned presence of prayer at the public school event resulted ultimately in the school board deciding to simply cancel the entire ceremony.

This story has been featured on a number of news websites, religion blogs, and elsewhere online, and reading some of the reader responses posted in the “Comments” sections which often follow such reporting is instructive.

Many irate readers reacted with anger and resentment at the very idea that one parent’s complaint could derail the will of the majority. Presumably most parents wanted the school-led prayer to be included at the elementary schools’ graduation ceremonies; why, many asked with considerable indignation, should one person’s protest outweigh or outvote the clear will of most of the townsfolk to go ahead with such prayers?

Since when, they wondered aloud, does a minority get to dictate its will to the majority? This is America, after all, and isn’t America supposed to be a democracy, where we get to vote on things, and the majority opinion — the “will of the people” — wins?

Not only that, many commentators went on, but what’s wrong with a little prayer at a public event, anyway? No one’s forcing you to pray; if you don’t like it, just stay home, or just don’t pray (or leave the country, some harshly suggested).

Many pointed out that, after all, this is a Christian-majority country (and presumably this was a Christian-majority Arkansas town), so why not have Christian prayers at the school graduation ceremony, if that’s what the majority wants? And isn’t this whole thing just an example of “political correctness” gone overboard? Isn’t it high time we stopped fretting over whether something as innocuous as a prayer might “offend” somebody?

Well, the problem, of course, is not that prayers at a school graduation might simply “offend” someone, or that banning such prayers is merely a preposterous manifestation of out-of-control “political correctness.” Rather, the problem is one of legality and constitutionality.

It is simply unconstitutional, and hence illegal, for a public school to conduct prayers.

Why? Because public schools, being taxpayer-funded and government-operated, are an arm of the state. And the U.S. Constitution effectively guarantees “separation of church and state,” as a number of U.S. Supreme Court cases have repeatedly reinforced. A public school, being part of the state, simply cannot engage in conducting religious rituals, services, or functions (including prayers).

The graduation ceremonies in question are school-sponsored events, and as such for them to incorporate prayer would amount to state support, state sponsoring, or state endorsement of religion — a clear violation of constitutional principles.

The state (including its schools) is to remain officially neutral in matters of religion, neither privileging nor repressing religion.

It simply cannot, therefore, lead prayers. Not even if a majority of the parents whose children attend those schools want it to.

So, once again — and contrary to popular belief in some quarters — this is not a question of “political correctness,” or of bending over backward lest someone be “offended” by the presence of a prayer. It’s simply a matter of the U.S. Constitution, and of the constitutional principle of “separation of church and state.”