School prayer and the law

School prayer and the law

October 21st, 2010 in Opinion Times

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Jim Scales responded correctly to a complaint about prayers broadcast over loudspeakers at school-sponsored football games here. He ordered an end to them. The superintendent e-mailed all principals in the school system on Tuesday, reminding them that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled such prayers unconstitutional and that the practice should be stopped. School administrators should comply immediately.

Doing so won't be popular. Indeed, Scales said he's already received many complaints about the decision to ban prayers at school events. He will receive more. That doesn't matter. Compliance with the law does. His decision, in fact, does not prevent any individual from praying or otherwise exercising his or her religious freedom. Rather, it properly upholds and honors constitutional principles and government neutrality toward religion.

Putting an end to prayers at ball games - and, presumably at all other school events like graduation ceremonies - does not undermine those principals. Neither does it encroach on individual freedom. It simply and clearly sustains well-established laws that say schools and school sponsored groups cannot promote a religious message or give an official endorsement to religious beliefs. That is an important principle in contemporary society.

Those who rail against the law banning school prayer here and elsewhere are short-sighted. They overlook the fact the public schools by nature serve a diverse population - predominantly Christian to be sure, but with many Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and atheist students as well. The schools are funded by all taxpayers and therefore should be free of any school-approved religious activity. Public prayer at a school event oversteps that sensible requirement.

Public prayer at school events here is not a new phenomenon. Despite the law, it's gone on for years without serious complaint. That changed last week when the Freedom from Religion Foundation, acting on behalf of some students from Soddy-Daisy High School, sent a letter to Scales demanding that the school system end the custom of prayers at the school's football games and graduation ceremonies. The missive pointedly reminded Scales that the prayers were "unconstitutional" and said that if changes were not implemented the foundation would take steps to "remedy this serious and flagrant violation of the First Amendment."

Scales' order to end the prayers is the appropriate response. Religion and prayer are private and should be free of any government control or influence. Parents and religious institutions, not taxpayer-funded schools, should provide religious training. Promotion or support of prayer or religion at a public school might be popular, but it is against the law: it inherently favors the majority's religion, leaves those with other beliefs feeling left out. Putting an end to the practice is the right thing to do.