Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

OPINION>> School prayer falters


Adjournment of the 2005 General Assembly was a blessed event, coming as it did not a moment too soon. The legislature gets us into the worst trouble when it tries to transform religious doctrine into civil law and adjournment, or what we hope will be adjournment sine die, saved us from one more such folly.

Whether it simply ran out of time or it found the bill unacceptable, the Education Committee of the Senate let this session’s school prayer bill die at its last hasty meeting before adjournment. Sen. Jim Argue observed that the bill seemed to go too far, and no senator made a motion that it be endorsed.

The House of Representatives had approved the bill and rushed it to the Senate eight days ago.

Thus the state averts a certain lawsuit and a decision just as certainly unfavorable.

The bill purported to authorize voluntary student-led prayer at public school functions. Now, the U. S. Supreme Court, a court dominated by Republican-appointed justices, as recently as 2000 ruled that student-led prayer at school-sponsored assemblies and functions violated the Constitution as surely as did prayer officially sponsored by the government.

Students already may pray singly or in groups anywhere on school grounds any time as long as other students are not coerced into participating, the court said in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. But where students are assembled for school-sponsored functions, student-led prayer to a captive student audience is still de facto a government-enforced prayer.

The sponsor and backers of the bill said it got around that problem by saying that school officials were forbidden to prevent a student from leading a prayer over the public-address system at a football game or graduation. The premise was that since the hands of the principal, superintendent or school board would be tied, it would be clear that it was not a government prayer and was wholly initiated by a student, even though students of a different faith would be forced to listen or else get up and leave the stadium or the assembly.

But Rep. Bill Pritchard, the sponsor, gave it away in the House debate. He said: “This just gives those principals and administrators the cover they need to say, ‘I can’t interfere and I can’t stop this.”

It would be, in other words, just a ruse, “cover” for administrators who want to have a prayer to mollify the local Baptists, or Catholics, or whatever sect is dominant in any community. That seemed to mollify lawmakers who were worried about the state having to defend against another costly lawsuit.

Rep. Steve Harrelson of Texarkana, a lawyer, got to the heart of the problem. He said he had concluded that the bill might evade the church-state separation problem by staying the hands of administrators, but he was bothered nonetheless.

He pondered what would happen if a satan-worshiping student wanted to take over the public-address system at graduation or the homecoming football game to call upon the devil for dispensation.

Or someone who wanted to espouse another alien faith?

What about an atheist, a nature worshiper, who demanded province at every game, every function, to enlist followers?

Under Pritchard’s bill, the student would have to be given the mike. But, of course, you know that school officials would not let it happen. Only prayer and homilies meeting the standards of permissible religious views would be acceptable.

Let the kids continue to pray around the flagpole, as Rep. Buddy Blair said students did at the school in his town each day, or in private precincts where the Bible says they should pray but don’t make a federal case out of it.

And thanks, senators, for saving us from the cost and embarrassment of another suit.