PRAYER AND THE BIBLE IN SCHOOLS
Prayer and Bible reading are the primary media through which all people, past and present, have expressed their relationship to the divine. They are at the heart of every religion, universal acts in which one can express deepest feelings. However, society officially bans prayer and Bible reading in its public schools. The United States Constitution leaves control over educational matters to the state governments, not the federal government. One must look primarily to state statutes and to the interpretation of these statutes by state courts to determine the answers to legal questions and concerns regarding education. The First Admendment concerns freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly, and the right "to petition the government for redress of grievances." The First Admendment has two clauses that are often cited in lawsuits: the establishment clause, which prohibits the establishment of a nationally sanctioned religion, and the free exercise clause, which protects rights of free speech and expression. In the case of Engel v. Vitale prayer in school was the concern, and in the case of Abington v. Schempp Bible reading in school was the concern.
The Engle v. Vitale case arose out of an attempt by New York State to meet objections to the recital of prayers in the state's public schools. Following the decision in Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court furthered the idea that religious activities performed by school officials violate the Establishment Clause, even if students are not required to take part. The Court, in this case, struck down two laws which required scripture reading and prayer at the opening of the school day. On appeal, the Supreme Court held that the practice was wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause. The Court stated that there could be no doubt that the classroom invocation was a religious activity. Neither the fact that prayer was denominationally neutral nor that its observance was voluntary served to free it from the limitations of the Establishment Clause. The Court reiterated the premise of Engel v. Vitale, that neither the state nor the federal government can constitutionally force a person to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. Nor can it pass laws which aid all religions as against nonbelievers.
In the case of Abington v. Schempp the Court stated that the primary purpose of the state requirement that the Bible be read or the Lord's Prayer be recited was religious. The Court also noted that it was intended by the state to be a religious ceremony. The compulsory nature of the ceremonies was not mitigated by the fact that students may absent themselves from the ceremonies, for that fact furnishes no defense to a claim of unconstitutionality under the Establishment Clause. This case came up when a Pennsylvania law required that Bible verses be read with no comment at the beginning of the school day. The Bible readings were to be followed by the recitation of the Lord's Prayer, held in the school, and were to be conducted by public school personnel. On parental written request the student did not need to be involved in the exercise. Two families challenged the constitutionality of the practice. The establishment clause of the First Admendment requires that the states be neutral toward religion. A law requiring a prayer at the beginning of the school day is an impermissible establishment of religion, whether or not students are required to participate.
Some may say that we need prayer to begin our day and Bible reading is a source of literature, however government established the law to protect the religious and the nonreligious.
Prepared by Christen Baylis-Heerschop