Scott Tibbs

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A reasonable compromise on school prayer

The debate over school prayer continues to rage in America, over 30 years after the Supreme Court ruling that banned teacher-led prayers in school. The Supreme Court ruled that mandatory prayer in school is a violation of the concept known as "separation of church and state". (The debate over that doctrine itself is an entirely different topic.)

On the surface, I would tend to agree. "Public schools" are now an arm of state and local government, which is why I use the term government schools rather than "public schools". The First Amendment prohibits the Congress from respecting the establishment of religion, and a later amendment applies the Bill of Rights to the states. Mandatory prayer in a government school toward a specific religion or denomination of a religion is government sanction of that religion or denomination, and therefore unconstitutional.

However, the issue is much more complex than the surface arguments, as the debate goes into student-initiated prayer and other, non-religious events.

Many people have objected to student-initiated prayer, specifically at graduations. If a valedictorian wishes to pray before or after his speech, I do not see a problem with that. The argument of people opposed to this seems to be that students at graduations are a captive audience and should not be forced to listen to a prayer. But in order to satisfy the desire of some students to be free FROM religion, do we have to violate the freedom of speech and freedom of religion of students who wish to pray on their own? People in the audience do not have to participate in the prayer, and no government official is forcing them to listen.

In addition, there is a rather silly controversy over whether a mandated "moment of silence" at the beginning of the school day constitutes government endorsement of religion and is therefore unconstitutional. I fail to see the logic in this. An official from the American Civil Liberties Union argued on CNN's "Crossfire" a few years ago that a "moment of silence" is a backdoor way of instituting prayer in school. This is true. I'm not going to be naive or dishonest enough to say that the idea of a moment of silence was not conceived to allow students to pray at the beginning of a school day. Yes, a moment of silence does allow student to pray, but it is also an opportunity to study, read, or just sit quietly. Nobody is saying that the students be forced to pray during that moment of silence. In addition, a diverse classroom can pray to whatever god or religion they wish if they do indeed choose to pray.

Another argument by the ACLU official was that it was obvious that it was a backdoor way of instituting prayer in schools because Christian conservatives were pushing it. OK, then let's make sure that no law supported by Christian conservatives is ever passed, because we know their agenda is to implement a theocracy in America.

CNN reported that in one school district, a liberal teacher refused to follow the "moment of silence" policy, using the excuse that it takes away from valuable classroom time. Let's assume for a moment that that actually was his reason for refusing to cooperate, and not an ACLU argument that a moment of silence is unconstitutional. Oh, golly gee goodness guys, a whole thirty seconds at the beginning of the school day is really going to cause the complete and utter collapse of the entire American educational system. That thirty seconds is just invaluable in teaching kids the skills they will need to succeed in life, and without that huge block of time, how will they ever make it? Clearly, this excuse is downright stupid. The idea that taking thirty seconds out of a seven-hour school day will irreparably harm student's education is completely without logic.

In any case, a moment of silence is often used when a tragedy occurs at a school, from the latest hate-filled rampage of psychotic students to a death of a teacher or student by natural causes. When Hillary Clinton recently led the nation on a moment of silence to commemorate the victims of the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, nobody was screaming "Separation of Church and State".

It seems to me that a moment of silence at the beginning of the day is a good middle of the road compromise between liberals who are anti-school prayer and conservatives who support school prayer. It passes the constitutional test of no government sponsorship of religion, and it will help bring back what is so dearly needed in American schools: a moment of respect and reverence to put the day in perspective.