Stephen D. Solomon:
“Kids and Prayers – the Misunderstood Conflict over God in the Classroom,”
This is the recap by Frank Robinson, of a talk given by Stephen D. Solomon, at the September 12th, 2010 CDHS monthly meeting.
Stephen D. Solomon teaches First Amendment law at New York University and is Associate Director of NYU’s Carter Journalism Institute. His topic was “Kids and Prayers – the Misunderstood Conflict over God in the Classroom,” based on his recent book, Ellery’s Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle over School Prayer.
Historical backdrop: Nine of the original 13 states had established churches. Schools were privately funded, and religion was a key part of the curriculum. When public schools began to spread in the mid-19th century, the dominant protestant sects used them to inculcate their own religious doctrines; this provoked a lot of conflict. Solomon told the story of an 1844 battle between Catholics and Protestants over religion in Philadelphia’s public schools that was close to civil war with much violence. However, as the population grew more diverse, people actually started respecting each other, and to avoid conflict religion was largely removed from public schools, leaving only a brief prayer and Bible reading in most places.
Enter 16-year-old Ellery Schempp in 1956, attending Pennsylvania’s Abington High School. The state legislature had, in 1913, required a daily school prayer-and-reading. Schempp felt this violated the First Amendment, and decided to protest by bringing a Koran to school and reading it silently during the religious exercise, for which he refused to stand. The case – Abington Township v. Schempp – reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963.
A year earlier, in Engel v. Vitale, the Court had struck down a “nondenominational” prayer composed by the New York Board of Regents for reading in schools. The Court held that writing prayers was no business of government. In the Schempp case, the Court extended the principle to hold that any prayer in public schools violates the First Amendment.
This has been one of the Court’s most unpopular decisions ever. No year goes by without some effort in Congress to amend the Constitution to void the ruling.
Solomon said that the wrath evoked by the Schempp case reflects three basic misunderstandings:
1. That “liberal activist judges” kicked God out of schools. In fact, it was an 8-1 decision, supported by 3 conservatives, including John Marshall Harlan, the Court’s leading conservative intellectual. And it was actually the American people themselves who did most of the work of banishing God from schools, in order to avoid conflicts like the mentioned 1844 episode.
2. The idea that we could restore prayer to schools without provoking that kind of community strife and animosity. And Solomon noted that if religion is allowed in schools, the question of how much religion is allowed would become a big problem.
3. That public schools are bastions of secularism. In fact, there is more religion in schools today than at the time of the Schempp decision – but it’s voluntary activity by students. This is protected by the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause; and as long as the state is not involved, there is no violation of the “establishment” clause.
At the time of the litigation, the Schempp family experienced the high degree of community hostility that one might have expected. Schempp went on to a distinguished career in physics and engineering. A few years ago he was inducted into Abington High School’s Hall of Fame.
God bless America.
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