Why There Will Never Be School Prayer
(and why it might not be such a bad thing if there were)
New York Newsday, 11/19/94; Salt Lake Tribune 11/27/94
Rep. Newt Gingrich announced after the election that he is going to solve America's problems by reintroducing school prayer. It is not going to work.
Not that school prayer is a feeble tool for combatting racial tensions, out of control crime, or American families' sense of fear, apprehension and inadequacy in the face of the ever-increasing uncertainty of the American economy. Nor would school prayer necessarily fail to bring back the days when average Americans could aspire to a job that was not in imminent danger of being "down-sized," or restore family hopes for living a middle-class life without two incomes, no children and at least one graduate degree, or revive for average workers real wages higher than those earned three decades earlier, or promise a medical bill for a pregnancy and birth bore having no resemblance to the average American's salary for a similar nine month period.
School prayer might intervene on behalf of such things. The powers of prayer are manifold, and with enough children praying, perhaps divine providence would turn our political system to solving real issues bedeviling the country. The book of Job says prayer worked for Nineveh; perhaps it would work for us as well.
But, school prayer isn't coming back. Newt Gingrich may be able to persuade the U.S. Congress that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution is unAmerican and needs to be changed. He may even persuade the American people, or enough of them, to go along. It's even possible, although harder to imagine, that the Supreme Court will read the election returns and conclude that having the government force children to say prayers written by a government bureaucrat is not religious coercion and does not violate the principle of separation of church and state -- stranger things have happened in Constitutional jurisprudence.
Even if the Constitution is amended to state that, "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or restricting the free exercise thereof, except that all children shall be coerced, under penalty of expulsion from school, to recite a governmentally mandated prayer each morning, and such coerced prayer shall not be deemed to violate anyone's right to practice their religion free of governmental coercion," school prayer still isn't coming back. We are simply to diverse a country for that.
Imagine the situation the day after compulsory school prayer is reintroduced into the law of the United States. First, Republicans throughout the United States will celebrate the return of God to the classroom. Then, they will have to decide which God is returning to the classroom and how we are going to address Him, Her, It or Them. If you thought the struggles over abortion rights or school prayer were bad, wait for that one.
Here in Salt Lake City, not the most diverse of towns, our City Council decided to combat the problems of latchkey children, enormous classes in the public schools and rising crime by instituting public prayer before City Council meetings. Naturally, there was an expensive lawsuit; several years and much legal fees (financed by the taxpayers, of course) later, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that the City Council could begin with prayer, provided, of course, that it lived up to its promise to treat all the different religions in Salt Lake City with respect.
So the council announced it would begin to pray before meeting and began to look for religious leaders to lead it. As I recall, the first offer to lead the prayer came from a devoutly religious individual who wished to pray for the council to be endowed by the divine powers-that-be with the good sense to stop public prayer. The second request came from a group of Satanists, or something like that. At this point, the council -- apparently even before the first prayer was heard on high -- concluded that maybe public prayer was not such a good thing after all.
When prayer is restored to America's schoolrooms, the fundamentalists are going to be astonished to discover their fantasy of a uniform, monotonic, lock-step (or is it goose-step?) America shattered by the reality of our long history of diversity, freedom of thought and immigration. Those of our fellow citizens who don't want to allow their (or my) children to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, J.D. Salinger or Charles Darwin for fear that their (and my) children might be exposed to great literature, new ideas, scientific method or western civilization, are going to find that American prayers include expressions of obeisance to Allah, praises to the multiple Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism, addresses to Wiccan and Druid spirits of the fields and Santerian animal sacrifices. They will discover that some Jews thank God each morning that they were not born Christian; that some Unitarians pray for the separation of church and state; that Catholic prayer, Mormon prayer, Amish prayer and Baptist prayer have relatively little in common; that many American children pray in Spanish and other non-English languages; and that Shinto, Buddhist or West African animist rituals are quite different from anything they imagined their children doing in public school.
If Newt Gingrich and his followers thought that exposure to the evolutionary basis of physics and biology was threatening to their ability to close the minds of our children, how are they going to accept direct confrontation with the multiple ways that Americans address their God, Gods, Goddesses and spirits? How are they going to allow their children to hear and participate in infidel, pagan, non-English language, even sectarian Christian prayer?
After the reinstitution of public school prayer, the resurgent Gingrichians, like the Salt Lake City Council, will suddenly realize the disaster they have created for themselves. For surely exposure to the multiplicity of American religions -- faster even than exposure to science or great literature -- will teach the children the absurdity of thinking that Newt and the fundamentalists have a monopoly on truth.
And surely exposure to the great variety of traditions of decent Americans will teach them the truths -- on which our First Amendment is based -- that were so obvious to Jefferson and the other liberal demons of the new "political theology": First, a beneficent God surely could not have created such multiplicity unless diversity is a good thing. Second, in the face of such diversity, removing religion from government and government from religion is the best way to keep the peace.
Daniel J.H. Greenwood is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Utah College of Law, where he specializes in problems of inter- and intra-group relations in business and political law.