School prayer has been a matter of serious contention for decades. In 1962 the Supreme Court in Engel v. Vitale determined that it is unconstitutional for state officials to compose a school prayer and have it recited in public schools. In some ways this case can be seen as a catalyst for two extremes since. The one led to a persistent move by some to expunge religion and religious expression from schools altogether. The opposite, ands equally troubling reaction has been a push for religious expression at all school events, from classroom, to football game to graduation.
On March 1 the Florida legislature passed SB98 by a vote of 88-27. This bill authorizes school districts to allow “inspirational messages” and prayer by students at school assemblies. It steers clear of direct conflict with the law by specifying that messages are to be student composed and led without input or review by faculty.
One has to wonder how long since the legislators have been in school. A public forum at which the faculty has no input or control is trouble made to order—unless there is actually some degree of staff oversight. One has to wonder at the reaction from staff and parents the first time a student gets up and prays to Allah, or the Earth Goddess, or Thor (young people do have a sense of humor, you know). And even the most mildly perceptive individual has to guess that this bill is a conservative religious foot in the door with a larger goal.
Ironies abound in the current church-state controversy generally, but nowhere more so than in the education field. The New York State Senate just recently passed an amendment that would reverse the New York City Board of Education decision to evict nearly 70 churches that have been renting after-hours space in public schools (Liberty has a story on this in process). Meanwhile a Federal appeals court in Chicago is reviewing a case in which the Elmbrook School District used the auditorium at a nearby church for its graduation ceremonies.
Whether we have more to fear of damage to religious freedom from radical secularists or from religious monomaniacs remains to be seen. From my perspective we need to maintain a healthy separation of church and state in a way that encourages religious activity. It has always impressed me that my church, long a champion of religious freedom has steered clear of throwing out the religious baby with the separation bathwater. Adventist pioneer Ellen White once wrote of moves in the 1880s to have the Bible taught in public schools. She could not see “the justice nor the right” in it. But she cautioned that since only good could come of young people actually reading the Bible, we should be careful not to oppose it in a way that might make Adventists seem opposed to the Bible itself. In this current school prayer move, I must follow that lead. I think it will lead some young people to think again on matters of faith. It will, of course, lead to further church-state ambivalence. I pray that the second hazard does not outweigh the first admirable goal.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."