Prayer Puzzlement: After 50 Years, Some Still Misunderstand High Court Prayer Decision

It is no business of government bureaucrats to instruct children in when, how or whether to pray.

Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan attended a fund-raiser in Utah yesterday and was asked about school prayer. His reply was curious.

“That's a constitutional issue of the states, moral responsibility of parents, education,” Ryan said.

Let’s dissect this a bit. First off, Ryan’s claim that school prayer is “a constitutional issue of the states” is inaccurate. State legislators can, of course, pass school prayer laws if they want, but it’s a waste of time. If a law mandates or compels young people to take part in prayer or religious worship, the courts will strike it down.

It’s not like this is some recent development. The first school prayer case to reach the Supreme Court, Engel v. Vitale, was decided in June of 1962 – 50 years ago. (Read more about the Engel case here.) The high court made it clear – and subsequent decisions have affirmed – that a religious majority cannot compel the minority to take part in worship activities.

So, this is not an issue of “state’s rights.” Ever since the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, states have had no power to infringe upon the liberties guaranteed us by the First Amendment.

Ryan goes on to imply that prayer is the “moral responsibility of parents.” Here I can agree with him – which is exactly why we no longer have government-sponsored prayer in public schools. It usurps parental rights.

The parents who brought the Engel case on Long Island, N.Y., were dismayed after the New York Board of Regents in 1955 composed and adopted a “regents’ prayer” and offered it to schools for daily recitation. The prayer was supposedly “non-sectarian” – although some religious people argued it was really theological pabulum.

In any case, many parents were adamant that it was no business of government bureaucrats to instruct children in when, how or whether to pray, so they filed suit. This seemed to be a profoundly conservative thing to do since it kept the intimate and personal decision about prayer where it belongs – at home with the family. It has always puzzled me why so many conservatives don’t support this ruling.

Ryan went on to opine that he believes school prayer could pass easily in Utah. He’s right about that, and most likely the prayer recited would reflect the majority faith of Mormonism. The faiths and philosophies of everyone else would be relegated to second-class status. Compulsion, not choice, would become the operating principle for religious liberty as a type of religious mob rule carried the day. And all of this would be imposed on children, some of whom would be too young to even figure out what was going on.

You can call that a lot of things. “Conservative” isn’t one of them.