Public Schools and Religion
Last spring the 4,400 students at Santa Fe High School, which is part of a school district near Galveston, Tex., voted to elect one of their number to deliver an inspirational message before the home games of the school’s football team. Marian Ward, the senior chosen, was warned by school administrators not to include any words that could be considered a prayer. That was because earlier in 1999, a three-member panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is based in New Orleans, had ruled that student-led non-sectarian prayers can be allowed at graduation exercises, since these are solemn milestone events, but such prayers are not permissible at football games.
The school district would have been obliged to enforce this ruling had not the resourceful Ms. Ward and her parents obtained a temporary restraining order from U.S. District Court Judge Sim Lake of Houston. Before last autumn’s games, Ms. Ward regularly thanked God and asked protection for the players and preservation of a spirit of good sportsmanship.
School officials have themselves appealed that Fifth Circuit ban on pre-game prayers, and the U.S. Supreme Court announced last Nov. 15 that it would hear the appeal. The court will, therefore, resolve this particular question. It will not consider, much less resolve, the broader, more enduring and more complicated question that the Santa Fe case symbolizes: What part do public schools have in religious education?
That they should have some part was taken for granted 200 years ago and is a view quite common even today; it is not limited to the so-called Christian right. With a directness that rattled the leadership of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, President Clinton remarked in a Saturday radio address on the 18th of last month: I have never believed the Constitution required our schools to be religion-free zones, or that our children must check their faith at the schoolhouse door.
These are bracing generalizations, not pedagogical blueprints. No methods of showing friendliness toward religion can be constitutionally acceptable in public schools unless they safeguard the rights of parents who do not want to see their children proselytized and the rights of students who do not want to be coerced by even the most vague of prayers.
All the same, brief devotional exercises were common in many public schools until quite recently. It was only in the 1963 Schempp case that school prayer was declared unconstitutional, when the Supreme Court struck down a Pennsylvania statute requiring Bible reading and the Lord’s Prayer at the start of the public-school day.
In his opinion for the Schempp majority, Justice Tom C. Clark observed that in the relationship between man and religion the state is committed to a position of neutrality. But he immediately added that this does not mean that public schools should ignore religion: It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities.
In other words, some useful forms of religious education are available to public schools in light of court rulings. Two come to mind.
The first is attractive in theory but nearly impossible to realize in practice. It is a program of the sort Justice Clark mentionedone that teaches about the various religions and their role in history. Earnest efforts have been made both by individuals and interfaith committees to design a curriculum that would be acceptable to the major churches and therefore have some chance of being widely adopted. So far, none of these attempts have succeeded.
At the high school level, however, there has been a development that works in practice and has promise. Under the Equal Access Act passed by Congress in 1984, public schools must allow religious clubs led by students the same facilities and benefits given to other extracurricular activities. Churches may not organize or direct these clubs, but they may provide them with resources and advice. Of course, these clubs would reach only a percentage of studentsmore in Texas, perhaps, than in New York Citybut at least they would offer what diplomats call a window of opportunity for churches.
Neither courses in comparative religion nor clubs can provide a fully adequate religious education, but they would allow public schools to share in the nourishing of religious literacy. On that account, consideration of them ought to be an item on the agenda for 2000, because the issues raised by cases like that of Santa Fe High will not be going away.