Jeff Landry, the attorney general of Louisiana, told a Religious Right group recently that he plans to work to bring prayer back to public schools.
“With your prayers, and an offense, we will get prayer back in public schools,” Landry told attendees of an event sponsored by the Louisiana Family Forum last month.
I sighed when I read that. The Religious Right’s crusade to “restore” prayer to public schools is long-running, but it’s a fool’s errand, chiefly because prayer in school is legal now, so there’s really nothing to “get back.”
Students in public schools have the right to engage in voluntary prayer, but they can't be compelled to take part in religious exercises.
As Americans United has pointed out repeatedly, public school students have the right to pray, as guided by individual conscience during the school day, as long as they do it in a non-disruptive manner. They can pray at the beginning of the day. They can pray over lunch. They can pray before they take a test. Students may not compel anyone else to take part, but the individual right to pray is secure and has been for as long as we’ve had public schools.
Furthermore, students can read religious (or non-religious) books such as the Bible, the Quran, the Upanishads, the Book of Mormon, Buddhist meditations, a tome by Richard Dawkins, etc. during any free time they may have.
But there’s more: A federal law called the Equal Access Act allows students at secondary schools to form religious and non-religious clubs that meet during non-instructional time. These clubs are student run and entirely voluntary, and those who chose to join can pray, read religious texts, share personal testimony and so on.
Given this remarkable scope of truly voluntary religious expression available to public school students, one has to wonder exactly what Landry means when he says he wants to bring prayer back to public schools.
Perhaps he wants to return to the situation many schools had prior to 1962 when daily prayers (often Christian) and Bible readings were forced onto students. If so, that’s unfortunate because that situation in no way fostered individual rights.
Let’s be clear about what was happening in many public schools before the Supreme Court handed down the first school prayer ruling: Students were being compelled to take part in religious exercises against their will and against their parents’ wishes.
In New York, the Board of Regents drafted an allegedly “non-sectarian” prayer for use in public schools. Not surprisingly, many parents didn’t want their children being pressured to recite a supposedly one-size-fits-all prayer drafted by bureaucrats. They argued that public schools shouldn’t be in the business of religious coercion. The Supreme Court agreed with them in Engel v. Vitale.
The following year, in a case from Pennsylvania, the high court struck down mandatory, school-sponsored Bible reading in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp. Again, there was nothing voluntary about these religious exercises. Pennsylvania law mandated that the public school day begin with a public reading of 10 verses from the “Holy Bible.” More often than not, this was interpreted to mean the King James Version.
The history of religion in public schools is much more complicated than the Religious Right would have the American people believe. Public education didn’t really begin to spread in America until the late 19th century, and the role religion played in it has always been controversial. (For more on this history, see this article I recently wrote for Education Law & Policy Review.)
It’s understandable that many Americans would not know the tangled history of religion in public schools and the conflict that forced prayer and Bible reading spawned. But politicians, especially those whose work is legal in nature, have no excuse for being ignorant. Part of their job is to correct misconceptions, not spread them.
If Landry really wants to go back to the bad old days of force, coercion and mandated religion in public schools, he’ll soon learn he has a fight on his hands.