The Constitution is a marvelous plan for running a nation, but sometimes it falls short.
Support for prayer in public schools surged with the Columbine, Colo., massacre of 1999. Calls for stricter gun laws followed. That clamor has been renewed by the slaughter of 12 moviegoers in Aurora, Colo. The gun control debate will die quickly.
But gun control is not the only issue excited by the grim event in Aurora. Millions of Americans believe America is in a moral decline – one that began with the banning of prayer in the public school. The Aurora incident energized prayer in school advocates. It also renewed the anti-gun clatter and chorus.
The link between gun control and prayer in school is spelled out in a bumper sticker that reads: “Guns, Guts and God. Made in America. Let’s keep all three.”
More than 80 percent of Americans belong to a church – the greatest church membership among developed nations.
How important is this affiliation? It has been important enough to spark battles between brothers and neighbors. Wars flared in the Old World where Roman Catholics fought Protestants, Protestants fought Protestants and scattered in a multiplicity of sects.
Religious dissenters fled to America in search of religious liberty. When English-ruled colonies revolted and founded a new nation, religion topped the Bill of Rights.
The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
What a slam, bam, noble notion. The First not only shields religion but protects freedom speech and press, the right to assemble and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances.
The First has served both government and churches well. Largely because of this prohibition against government regulation or endorsement of religion, diverse faiths have flourished and thrived in America since the founding of the republic.
Prayer in schools remains a hot button issue in American politics. Americans are still among the most religious people in the world. Yet the government plays almost no role in promoting, endorsing or funding religious institutions or religious beliefs.
Free from government control – and without government assistance – religious values, literature, traditions and holidays permeate the lives of our citizens and, in their diverse ways, form an integral part of our national culture. By maintaining the wall separating church and state, we can guarantee the continued vitality of Religion in American life.
Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black best expressed the purpose and function of the Establishment Clause when he said that it rests “on the belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and degrade religion.”
In time, the amendment was cited by Americans who did not wish religion well. Madalyn Murray O’Hare, perhaps America’s most famous atheist, declared war on religion in schools. The Supreme Court ruled in her favor, banning prayer in all public schools in 1962.
In the battle between the Constitution and a contentious laity and clergy, the Supreme Court holds all the cards. Thank God and the founding fathers.
Below are some scenes that might have occurred in the absence of the First Amendment’s wall separating church and state.
• Twenty-four children fill the aisles between desks in an American classroom. Knees on prayer rugs, foreheads pressed to the floor, they praise Allah. The same cluster will pray again after the second, third, fourth and fifth periods. The 24 are not Muslims, but might be someday.
• Heads bowed, eyes closed, rosaries in hand, a roomful of kindergartners finger their beads and whisper, “Hail Mary, mother of God … .” Three or four of the smurfs are from Roman Catholic Homes. The rest are a mixed product of Methodist, Lutherans, Mormons, agnostics and Baptist homes.
• More than 1,000 youth in an auditorium recite an ancient Buddhist prayer: “We pay homage to the Awakened One, who dispels ignorance. Like a brightly shining light, he eliminates the darkness.”
• An auditor from the Church of Scientology counts Thetans clinging to public school pupils during an afternoon Health and Spirituality class. Thetans are spiritual beings capable of creating a whole universe. I never knew that, but in this brave new world your children might.