My friend Leon asked me recently, “Why can’t we pray in public school?”
American colonists certainly intended to found a Christian nation. The Mayflower Compact states their colony was “ … for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith ….”
While America was being settled, arguments about religion were among the most contentious issues. In 1634, Anne Hutchinson, a charismatic Puritan and mother of 15, immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. There, out of her deep religious convictions, she argued with the clergy. Gov. John Winthrop promptly banished her.
Subsequently, events got really nasty with the Salem witch trials (1692-93). At least 20 people, mostly women, were hanged or died in prison.
Things were not much better in the South. Virginians mandated baptizing infants into the Church of England. Children of dissenters could be taken from their parents. Baptists were imprisoned and denied public office.
By the mid-18th century, many Colonialists had adopted the liberal and secular philosophies of the Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson edited the New Testament to remove all reports of Jesus’ miracles and his resurrection. Leaders of the Revolution used the Declaration of Independence to reject the divine right of kings and assert the primacy of the people. What a dramatic shift from the Mayflower Compact.
The Revolutionary War followed with the deaths of at least 50,000 Revolutionaries and British soldiers. As many as 70,000 Loyalists fled the colonies. The violence and dislocation of war brought home to the Colonials the complexities of a changing world. Chaotic governance under the Articles of Confederation made clear that a weak central government would doom the new nation.
The Founders responded with the Constitutional Convention. The controversies of founding a new government required the delegates to meet behind closed doors. Benjamin Franklin proposed prayers to calm the delegates’ nerves, but the proposal died from lack of interest.
After the adoption of the Constitution, James Madison began the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” He believed these bans assured government without sectarian influence.
These establishment and free exercise clauses ensure individuals the right to instruct their children about religion. In Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), the court ruled the First Amendment prohibited the state from promoting religion through prayer or Bible reading in public schools. Justice Tom Clark wrote for the eight-member majority:
“The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind …. In the relationship between man and religion, the state is firmly committed to a position of neutrality.”
So, to answer my friend Leon, children may pray in school or read the Holy Bible during their free time. But public schools cannot mandate prayer or Bible reading. The court ruling delights me by affirming the right of families to instruct our children about religion without interference by the state.