When Speaker-In-Waiting Newt Gingrich announced his intent to force a vote on a constitutional amendment authorizing public school prayer, the subsequent public reaction reminded me of nothing so much as an athletic contest. The "teams" are lining up, the coaches and…
When Speaker-In-Waiting Newt Gingrich announced his intent to force a vote on a constitutional amendment authorizing public school prayer, the subsequent public reaction reminded me of nothing so much as an athletic contest. The "teams" are lining up, the coaches and cheerleaders (politicians playing to their perceived constituencies) are egging them on, and of course many fans have come, not to appreciate the nuances of the game, but to cheer for one side or the other.
If this is indeed the metaphor, then someone must win and someone must lose. But I would strongly suggest that this is the wrong metaphor and that both sides can win — if the debate results in a dialogue addressing the legitimate concerns of both the advocates and opponents of this measure.
As a civil libertarian I oppose handing over to government the power to compel my prayers or dictate my beliefs. But I do not believe that most proponents of a school prayer amendment really want to hand that authority over to the government. When I listen to them (a courtesy I hope will be reciprocated) I hear two complaints: that government has moved from neutrality to hostility where religion is concerned; and that we are failing to inculcate sound values in our public school classrooms.
Both of these are legitimate concerns that can and should be addressed — not by a constitutional amendment, which is unnecessary, but by a more honest discussion of the issues than has heretofore occurred.
There is enormous misunderstanding of current law. The Supreme Court has never held truly voluntary prayer unconstitutional; has never allowed school officials to interfere with non-disruptive religious activities of individual students. The Court has emphatically endorsed teaching students about religion’s contribution to society, to our history, music and art. The widespread belief that all reference to religion in the classroom has been declared illegal is simply false. That belief (which, it must be said, has been fostered by a deliberate campaign of misinformation by some folks who appear- more interested in fundraising than accuracy) has undoubtedly led to unnecessary self-censorship by many teachers and school administrators, but a constitutional amendment is not required to remedy this situation. What is needed is more accurate reporting of court opinions and a wider public understanding of the operation of current First Amendment law.
Here in Indiana, a task force composed of educators and clergy has produced a Handbook on Religion in the Public Schools, which sets out what the law really provides. Aptly, that booklet is titled, "Less Heat, More Light." It can be purchased by sending $5.95 to the Task Force on Religion and the Constitution, 1031 East Washington Street, Indianapolis, Indiana, 46202.
Furthermore, while it is true that schools cannot constitutionally promote particular religious beliefs, this does not preclude instruction in those values that are necessary to the maintenance of a civic and civil culture. A legally mandated morning prayer -whatever its merits or dangers – is hardly a substitute for discussions about the value of honesty, the need for diligence, the importance of tolerance, or the significance of our obligations as citizens.
If Gingrich’s proposal leads to more accurate public understanding of current law and a renewed commitment to the civic values we share, the inevitable debate can be empowering rather than polarizing. If it doesn’t, both "teams" will lose, because we will have further eroded our ability to conduct national discourse in ways that include and affirm rather than exclude and diminish.
Sheila Kennedy is the Executive Director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, headquartered in Indianapolis. The ICLU is an affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. If you do not have a photo on file, please call 317/635-4059. Also, feel free to use statements in this submission as direct quotes.