School Prayer, Posturing, and an Ineffective Government

I just found an interesting article at the Friendly Atheist. It seems some state senators in Indiana have introduced a bill to reinstate school prayer. The bill reads as follows:

In order that each student recognize the importance of spiritual development in establishing character and becoming a good citizen, the governing body of a school corporation or the equivalent authority of a charter school may require the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of each school day. The prayer may be recited by a teacher, a student, or the class of students.

Here is the problem: Official recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools has been unconstitutional since 1963.

Abington v. Schempp, which came before the Supreme Court in 1963, examined two school districts where the Lord’s Prayer was officially recited at the beginning of each school day as required by the state or by the school corporation. In some instances, the teacher said the prayer; in other instances, a student or the whole student body said it. The Supreme Court determined that official prayer in the public schools, whether extemporaneous prayer or a traditional prayer like the Lord’s Prayer or a “nonpartisan” governmentally composed prayer like the Regents’ Prayer, constituted a governmental establishment of religion, and was therefore unconstitutional prayer. Students could pray on their own if they liked, either before the school day or during a test or before lunch, but it could not be in any sense “official.”

What boggles my mind is that this case was decided nearly fifty years ago and yet somehow, it’s almost like those Indiana state senators don’t know anything about it. I mean, the bill they propose is BLATANTLY unconstitutional. It’s not even on the borderline, it’s plainly, clearly, obviously unconstitutional. I mean, it’s the same exact thing in every particular as what was struck down in Schempp!

What are these state senators thinking? I see three possibilities.

1. They honestly think that they can pass it and carry it out and no one will say boo.

2. They’re hoping to start a court case that will wind up in the Supreme Court and overturn Schempp.

3. They are trying to score points with their base by making a symbolic gesture.

If it’s option 1, they’re horribly, terribly naive. There’s no way they can pass this and have it hold up. If it’s option 2, they’re once again naive. The Supreme Court might consider peripheral issues like student-led prayer at sports games, but it’s not going to reconsider the core issues of Schempp. I think it’s most likely option 3, trying to score points with their base. After all, if it doesn’t pass or is struck down, they can say “at least I tried.”

Engel (decided in 1962 on the more narrow issue of governmentally written school prayer) and Schempp (1963) are important to the rhetoric of the Christian Right because these two decisions are targeted as the beginning of our national moral decline and the secularization of America. Their mythology holds that things were going great until the Supreme Court took God out of the schools. Then teens started having sex, kids started being disrespectful, and our national moral fiber plummeted. With this fictional past, restoring school prayer seems an easy answer. Children will once again learn to respect God, country, and parents, and our moral fiber will be restored. This mythology is of course invented – the removal of school prayer in the early 1960s did NOT cause the hippie anti-war protests of the late sixties, nor did it cause the “sexual revolution,” which was already well underway – but it is nonetheless very powerful to those who believe it.

I have a question, though. What if this does pass? It will quickly enter the courts and will be overturned. What will this cost the state? These state senators may think they are being good, godly Christians, seeking to return America to its godly foundations, but do they realize they are not only wasting the senate’s time but also may end up costing the taxpayers millions, and to no avail? Couldn’t this time and money be better spent?

We see this same problem today in the national Congress. They’re willing to spend hours, days, arguing about roundabout ways to restrict abortions (for example: making it so that United States service women’s health insurance will not cover abortion or passing a bill saying that if a woman is in the ER hemorrhaging to death and will die if she does not have an emergency abortion, a pro-life doctor can let her die with no legal consequences), but they can’t seem to actually conduct real business (such as voting on a director to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau).

My point is simply that this sort of posturing – the sort being carried out by these Indiana senators – is not actually harmless, and nor is it rare. I’m not saying that only Republicans do it, of course; rather, I’m trying to suggest that it’s part of what is broken about our political system today, part of the reason the government can’t seem to get anything done.
And that, my readers, is profoundly depressing.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Rebecca


  • Rob F

    IANAL, but if this law does pass, someone would need an actual harm to come about to them in order to be able to challenge it in court. If they haven't actually been harmed (in this case if they haven't actually been forced to participate in a prayer), the suit would be dismissed due to a lack of standing.And the actual reality is that students are allowed to pray in school. Thousands if not millions of students do it every school day. The key point is that students must pray on their own time. Basically, what is unconstitutional is forcing others to pray with you or for teachers (as government employees) endorsing religion or making others to pray with them.

  • Libby Anne

    Actually, Engel and Schempp were both decided WITHOUT the petitioners having to show harm. After all, in those cases, dissenting students were allowed to step out into the hall during prayers. A big argument the schools made was that there WAS no harm, but the Supreme Court said it didn't matter whether there was harm, the question was whether there was an establishment of religion. All that was necessary for standing was for the case to be brought by the parent of a student in one of the affected schools.

  • MrPopularSentiment

    I suspect it's #3, but with a little more evil. It's not just about appealing to the base, but also about setting up the narrative of the War on Christianity. When it gets struck down, they get one more example of the god-hating liberals in Washington who want to tell states what to do. This is "Big Government" meets the evil Atheists.

  • Rob F

    I would consider being made to step out in the hall, therefore exposing one to ridicule/ostracism/etc a reasonable harm.But still, I stand corrected.

  • AztecQueen2000

    Please. Talk about a poor understanding of history. The term "free love" dates back to the nineteenth century. Homosexuality has been known about since ancient Greece. And, up until maybe the fifties, you could buy hard drugs over the counter at most pharmacies. All of this, BTW, predates the Schempp decision by a lot.

  • Libby Anne

    Yes, they argued just that – that the kids were teased, harassed, etc – but the court said that whether actual harm could be proven or not (and the other side's lawyers disputed that harm occurred) was irrelevant to the question at hand, and actually didn't consider that issue at all. And I do think that in this case, if the law DID pass, a parent COULD allege harm (especially a Jewish or nonreligious parent), but my point is simply that that parent would not technically NEED to. And yes, I find this constitutionality stuff fascinating, though there is SO MUCH I do not know!

  • Christine

    I agree. A total waste of time and resources. Get to the important business like why is there such a discrepancy in education in poorer neighborhoods vs. wealthier ones. I live in Chicago, by the way. :)

  • LeftSidePositive

    "From 1940 to 1957, the teen birth rate increased 78 percent to a record high. The birth rate dropped fairly steadily from the end of the 1950s through the mid-1980s, but then increased 24 percent between 1986 and 1991. Between 1991 and 2005, the teen birth rate decreased 34 percent to a record low of 40.5 in 2005."