Three local high school students are helping all of us to be more mindful of our constitutional freedoms, particularly the freedom of and from religion. Irmo High School students Max Nielson (who just graduated), Dakota McMillan and Jacob Zupan have filed suit against Lexington-Richland School District 5 over its policy of allowing an invocation and benediction at high school graduations if a majority of students vote to have one, if it is delivered by a student and if it is non-sectarian and non-proselytizing.
Their lawsuit invokes the First and 14th Amendments, which prohibit Congress or state or local governments from “respecting an establishment of religion.” Thomas Jefferson referred to this principle as a “wall of separation between church and state.” That wall prevents zealots from using the power or purse of the government to force their religious beliefs or practices on the rest of us, while also preventing an overreaching government from interfering or intruding in religious beliefs or practices. The wall of separation protects the integrity of both government and religion.
That wall was strengthened in 1962 by the Supreme Court’s Engel v. Vitale decision, which has been misinterpreted and misrepresented for the past 50 years. Those on the religious right who believe that the separation of church and state is a myth mistakenly say that the ruling outlawed prayer in public schools; that it, in fact, kicked God out of the public schools.
This is absolutely not true. The Supreme Court outlawed government-sponsored, coercive, public prayers, not voluntary, individual prayers; as long as there are tests, it’s a safe bet that students will pray. The claims makes me wonder about the fragility of the faith of those who make them. Surely God is wherever a heart has room for love.
In the Engel case, the school board claimed that students were not coerced to pray because parents could excuse their children from the classroom during the prayer. But as the court wisely observed, “When the power, prestige, and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain.”
The graduation prayers at Irmo High may have the approval of a majority of students and may be delivered by students, but they receive the school’s implicit endorsement nonetheless. They are delivered as part of a school program in which students are a captive audience. I suppose students who do not want to participate in this religious exercise could skip their graduation or walk out of the auditorium during the prayer or put iPod buds in their ears or simply endure it for a few moments. But they shouldn’t have to. This is their graduation, too, and public schools are for all the public, even religious minorities and those of no religion.
Our Constitution ensures not only the rule of the majority but also the rights of the minority, which it preserves by preventing a tyranny of the majority. Rights are not voted on. That’s why they’re called rights.
Official school prayer is bad government policy and bad religious practice. It turns what should be an intimate matter into a public ceremony. Jesus was concerned that certain misguided pious people of his day were transforming his religion into a public show. He advised his followers not to be like the hypocrites who make a big display of praying in public, but to go to one’s room, shut the door and pray in private. Jesus understood that conspicuous prayer is not authentic prayer.
Nielson, McMillan, and Zupan may be students, but they are teaching an invaluable civics lesson on the meaning of separation of church and state, religious liberty and democratic government. Their lawsuit is proof that we have failed to learn the lesson.
The Rev. Dr. Jones is president of the Columbia Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Columbia.