May 31, 2012

The Supreme Court ruled against government-sponsored prayer in public schools half a century ago, but some politicians still don’t get it.

In a speech to students on Tuesday,  Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said he fondly remembers organized prayers during his school years and thinks the practice ought to be restored.

According to the Hattiesburg American, Bryant said, "I don't think it hurt us at all. I think it built our character, and I think it is what we should continue to do."

Talking to reporters after the address, the governor added, “I know it's difficult when you start talking about denominations and different beliefs, but I think there is a way for us to have a non-denominational opening prayer when the opportunity is available to let people know there is a God. Those children should know that he does care about them, particularly within their classroom."

The newspaper said Bryant, a Methodist, doesn’t plan to take any official action to restore government-sanctioned devotions, but he looks forward to a time when school prayer will again be common.

"Certainly, I think at some point at a moment of enlightenment in the future,” Bryant said, “the federal government and perhaps a future Supreme Court is gonna say, it's not a bad thing for children to hear prayer in school."

The governor, of course, is seriously off base here. Bryant may think government promotion of religion “didn’t hurt us at all,” but he’s wrong.

As the Supreme Court noted in its June 25, 1962, Engel v. Vitale ruling, government meddling in religious matters breaches the First Amendment wall of separation between church and state.

Wrote Justice Hugo Black, “[W]e think that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government.

“It is a matter of history,” he continued, “that this very practice of establishing governmentally composed prayers for religious services was one of the reasons which caused many of our early colonists to leave England and seek religious freedom in America.”

In other words, it hurts us all when government oversteps its constitutional bounds and interferes with Americans’ right to join a religion or follow no spiritual path at all. It is especially outrageous for government officials to presume to make decisions about religious instruction for children. That’s up to their parents, not politicians.

The governor ought to understand that there’s really no such thing as non-denominational prayer. I suspect that the school practice he remembers so fondly was, in fact, a generic Protestant prayer that dovetailed nicely with his faith. If it didn’t, he wouldn’t be so happy about it.

Inevitably, a prayer reflects the teachings of one religion or at best a few of them together. Non-denominational prayer is usually so watered down that it disgusts believers who take their devotions seriously. Thus it offends the faithful and non-theists alike.

Bryant doesn’t seem to understand that the high court didn’t “ban” prayer in public schools. Students are perfectly free to pray voluntarily on their own time as long as they aren’t disrupting the school or interfering with the rights of others. 

It’s always amazing to me that many political conservatives – who usually harp endlessly about their desire for small government – suddenly favor Big Government when it comes to religion.

Bryant told the student group his political philosophy is built on personal responsibility. Well, if it is, that approach ought to extend to decisions about worship. Let every Mississippi resident take “personal responsibility” for their devotions and keep government out of the picture.

By the way, Bryant noted that Mississippi has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the country and the highest rate of obesity. Those two problems, alongside the state’s struggle with illiteracy, poverty and inadequate health care, ought to more than keep him busy during his term in office.

Stick to public business, governor, and leave matters of faith alone.