In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale that school-sponsored prayer is unconstitutional under the First Amendment in public institutions. Today, a religious group in Jacksonville, Fla., led by Felicia Townes is fighting to reverse that decision.
Last week, Townes traveled to the state capital of Tallahassee where she tried to garner support and petitioners to help her on the mission of bringing formal prayer back into public schools. Her reasoning? She believes prayer to be the answer to helping behavioral and mental health issues in children and teens.
“We see a rise in bullying and suicidal thoughts without prayer, and so we believe that prayer goes back into the school.,” Townes said. “We believe that it will eradicate all bullying, all depression.”
Some backers of compulsory worship in public schools seem to believe that forcing young people to say prayers will solve every social ill. It’s a gross oversimplification. There has been no evidence to suggest that Townes’ theory is correct. In fact, her argument sets a very dangerous precedent. For almost 60 years, the high court has affirmed that school-sponsored prayer violates the separation of church and state as well as individual rights. Townes, however, is trying to use the very real and very serious issue of mental health among children and teens as a justification to impose her own religious beliefs onto children in the public school system. This is a clear attack on religious freedom.
Townes is traveling all over Florida to share her mission and get petition signatures. As she states, “Children are in school five days a week, anywhere from six, seven, eight hours a day. Throughout the day, have words of affirmation, words of confirmation to let our young people know, our children know that they are somebody, only through prayer.” According to Townes’ reasoning, children will only understand their own worth through religion and prayer. This is a very troubling ideology to enforce on others.
As the Supreme Court shifts with the recent appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, cementing a 6-3 conservative majority, supporters of religious freedom and the separation of church and state might have more to worry about from people like Townes.