.. on and the sting of exclusion; so the courts must be vigilant against religion in school settings. There is certainly some awkwardness in asking non-Christians to participate in, or remove themselves from, explicitly Christian devotion, which public schools have sometimes sponsored explicitly. But from the time of President Washington onward, public figures, public proclamations, and public rituals have invoked divine authority while steering clear of sectarian references. The New York state prayer struck down by the Supreme Court was itself entirely non-sectarian.
Where there are any sizable numbers of non-Christians among the students, it seems unlikely in the future that school officials will insist on religious formulas that are bound to offend many people. The truth, however, is that while schools may usually try to avoid giving offense, no one seriously pretends that schools have a constitutional duty, or even a practical hope, of making every student feel equally comfortable at all times. Many public schools put a great deal of emphasis on competitive sports. Students with physical handicaps may not be able to participate in these sporting contests, but no one argues that schools must therefore abolish their sports programs. Many schools sponsor patriotic rituals centered around flag-raising ceremonies or the singing of patriotic songs. Students who are citizens of other countries, or who have been raised to think that America is not a land of “liberty and justice for all,” may find such ceremonies alien or repellent. Few would then maintain that these ceremonies be abolished.
The Supreme Court itself, in a celebrated 1943 case, ruled that school children could not be required to say the Pledge of Allegiance if it violated their conscience to do so; but the court did not conclude that because some children have conscientious objections to the flag salute, schools must discontinue the practice for all children. Only those who object to religious displays are given veto rights under current constitutional law. The point is worth stressing. Lots of things go on in public schools these days that offend ordinary American parents. The New York City Board of Education provoked a ruckus when it proposed to teach tolerance of gays by getting elementary school students to read works like “Heather Has Two Mommies” (which contains a rather graphic description of how one of those mommies conceived Heather by artificial insemination)(Lewis). But parents who object to this sort of thing are confined to political channels of protest; no court doctrine establishes a general right to protest offensive material in public schools.
Similarly, white parents in Prince George’s County, Maryland protested the excesses of the public school system’s “Afrocentric Curriculum,” in which some texts degenerate into anti-white racism. They could not get a day in court for such objections. The federal courts have not been content with this one-sided vigilance against affronts arising from actual religious expression. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Pico v. School Board that schools could not even voluntarily accommodate objections from religious parents to school practices that offended them.
In this case, the court held that removing “offensive” books from school libraries was an impermissible form of censorship (Dyckman). In a 1968 case, the court held that schools could not omit the teaching of evolution theory, since this would endorse the “religious” objections of Bible-believers to evolution theory. When a school board this past October withdrew books on voodoo and witchcraft from school libraries in response to parental complaints, including books explaining how to cast love “spells” or killing “spells”, a federal court ruled this action unconstitutional. A lower court even ruled that one school district had violated the Constitution by banning school dances, since the court found grounds to suspect that the objection to dances was “religious.” So as you can see the court has been trying to stop unconstitutional behavior that has been implemented by severe right wing conservatives. The Court has tried to be far, and in many cases it has, but without full Congressional support the Judicial system can not see the errors of its ways. After all, then, the issue is not really one of assuring accommodation of differing viewpoints and trying to limit wounded feeling. The issue is essentially one of assuring that public schools remain in the hands of the appropriate people.
The question is not protected minorities, in most communities, for example, conservative Christians who object to books on witchcraft in school libraries are probably minorities themselves. The issue is assuring that certain privileged minorities get their way, and that others, even when they are the majority, are denied any control of school practices. It may not always be possible to satisfy everyone. If a school prayer amendment removes the federal judiciary from its current role as umpire of cultural etiquette in this area, some families are sure to find the consequences disturbing to their sensibilities. If the most insistently liberal or secularist students find their schools to be intolerably religious or conservative or whatever, they are free to attend private schools more to their liking; which is exactly the advice given to students who sought some acknowledgment of religion in their schools over the past thirty years.
Indeed, many and perhaps most conservatives would support some form of government aid to these private liberal havens, as long as the courts would also allow aid to private schools operated under religious auspices. Due to all the debating that goes on between all the sides of this argument the main objective at hand may be lost. Parents, Congressman, and school board administrators may be so concerned about winning votes for their side that they lose track of the most important issue of all, the education of our nations children. With or without prayer in school children will these institutions in order to learn and to seek direction in life. Even if a voluntary silent prayer was permitted in our public schools, shouldnt the students (and parents for that matter) be more focused on the learning experience rather than the religious one? If the people who run our nation today overlook the true life lessons our children must learn then we are headed for certain disaster. If we dont take care of our children now, who will be there to take care of us in the autumn of our years? Even if not finally adopted, a prayer amendment would send a strong signal to the Supreme Court to leave difficult issues such as accommodation of religion to the good sense of accountable officials at the state and local levels.
Whatever those officials might do, they are unlikely to offend more people than the federal courts have done. It is time for us to see each other as Americans, not a room full of individuals. If we never fight together they none of us will ever win.