Friday, June 1, 2012

Mississippi Governor Endorses School Prayer

Phil BryantPrior to 1962, it was fairly common for public schools in the United States to begin the school day with a prayer or reading from the Christian bible. Religious minorities, including Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, and atheists, often objected and even won some legal cases at the state level.

Relief finally came in the form of three landmark cases decided by the U.S. Supreme court in 1962, 1963, and 1971. First, Engel v. Vitale held that the use of official state-sponsored prayers violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This was in direct response to efforts by New York to develop an official state prayer to be used in schools throughout the state. According to Justice Hugo Black:
[W]e think that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government.
The second and most widely known of these cases was Abington School District v. Schempp. This was the big one, the case most often credited with finally ending the practice of bible readings and state-sponsored religious activities in public schools. Finally, in Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Court attempted to spell out what would constitute a violation of the law when it came to religion in public schools. The so-called Lemon test specified three criteria that must be met for a state-sponsored practice to be permissible:
  1. Have a secular purpose;
  2. Neither advance nor inhibit religion; and
  3. Not lead to excessive entanglement between government and religion.

Just because the law is fairly clear when it comes to state-sponsored prayer does not mean that the issue is no longer controversial for some misinformed Christians. And here in Mississippi, we have plenty of misinformed Christians.

The Associated Press reported this week that Gov. Phil Bryant (R-MS) told a group of high school students that he favors schools opening the day with prayer.

While speaking to approximately 300 students at American Legion Boys State on Tuesday, Bryant said that he grew up with school prayer and considers it a positive influence.

After the speech, Bryant told reporters:
I know it's difficult when you start talking about denominations and different beliefs, but I think there is a way for us to have a nondenominational opening prayer when the opportunity is available to let people know there is a God. Those children should know that he does care about them, particularly within their classroom.
Bryant does not seem to realize that the state is not supposed to be in the business of promoting the idea that there is any sort of god. Deep-Fried Freethinkers provided a great response to Bryant's speech in which they explain why his proposal violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Of particular note, they also examine why what Bryant is suggesting should be anathema not only to atheists but to religious believers, including many Christians.

The good news is that Gov. Bryant stated that he is not prepared to take any sort of action to enact state-sponsored school prayer in Mississippi. They bad news is that he clearly thinks it is a good idea and something he would like to see. Hopefully, he's just pandering to religious extremists who despise the Constitution and not seriously considering this as a future agenda item.

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