Prayer

Leaders can, school kids can't

"I encourage all the people of the United States ... to share the spirit of fellowship and prayer and to reinforce the ties of family and community; to express heartfelt thanks to God for the many blessings He has bestowed upon us."

So urged President Clinton in his annual Thanksgiving proclamation last week. The unabashedly religious tone of the president's message was no doubt offensive to "secular humanist" types throughout the fair land.

They believe that any utterance about God by public officials (like the president), or any homage paid to the Almighty by private individuals in public places, somehow undermines the "separation of church and state" that phantom constitutional principle.

The Supreme Court ought to settle, once and for all, the half-century-long legal war between the God-fearing and the godless. And the justices can begin with the school-prayer case out of Texas that they placed on the high court's docket earlier this month.

The case dates back to 1995, when the parents of four students enrolled in the Santa Fe, Texas, public schools challenged the district's policy of allowing students to recite prayers before football games (as a way of promoting the safety of the student athletes, as well as good sportsmanship).

For good measure, the parents also challenged the district's policy of allowing benedictions during high school graduation ceremonies.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans, reached a split decision on the case this past February. By a 2-1 majority, the panel ruled that student-led graduation prayers were within constitutional bounds as long as school officials instructed students that those prayers must be "nonsectarian and nonproselytizing."

But as to student-led prayers at football games, the panel held that they are out of bounds, constitutionally, under any and all circumstances. Gridiron clashes are "hardly the sober type of annual event that can be appropriately solemnized with prayer," the two-judge majority declared.

Perhaps because the 5th Circuit panel ruled that student-led graduation prayers are constitutionally acceptable under court-specified conditions, the Supreme Court declined to address the issue. Instead, the justices agreed to decide the matter of whether student-led organized prayer is allowed before school-sponsored sporting events.

But one more narrow school-prayer decision will hardly resolve the constitutional dispute to the satisfaction of the American people. The nation's highest court needs to reach all the way back to 1962 and overturn the ruling that first declared school prayer unconstitutional.

It came in a New York case, Engels v. Vitale, in which the liberal, activist Warren court turned the First Amendment's so-called "establishment clause" on its head.

The clause reads that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof." What that says is that the government may not establish one religion for all of the people. It does not say that public institutions including schools will have absolutely nothing to do with religion.

Those who insist that school prayer is unconstitutional, who maintain that the Constitution somehow requires a separation of church and state, have obviously misread the document; they are obviously ignorant of the founders' views on government and religion.

Indeed, 210 Thanksgivings ago, President George Washington issued a proclamation that declared it "the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor."

The Father of our Country also noted that "both Houses of Congress have ... requested me to 'recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God.'"

The United States is a nation that was founded by God-fearing people who never imagined that the government they created would one day banish religion from schools and other public institutions.

Indeed, when the early Congress neglected one day to begin its proceedings with prayer, Benjamin Franklin admonished: "Have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine we no longer need His assistance?"

Ever since that day, more than two centuries ago, Congress has begun its daily business with prayer.

Which raises a question that the overwhelming majority of Americans who support school prayer have been asking for the past four decades:

If prayer is constitutionally acceptable in the public chambers of the Capitol, how can the Supreme Court constitutionally defend a ban on prayer and other forms of religious expression in schools and other public venues? (Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn. Joseph Perkins is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.)

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