Wednesday, May 12, 2010

IN Touch: Spotlight on Public Prayer

My fourteenth post on The Indianapolis Star's IN Touch blog is now online. As I keep saying when I post these entries, I'm going to keep re-posting my IN Touch entries here (at least until someone from the Star asks me to stop). Go ahead and visit the post on the IN Touch site, anyway.

Two recent court decisions have once again put the spotlight on government-sponsored prayer. A federal court in Indiana issued an injunction to prevent a student-led, school-sponsored prayer at Greenwood High School's graduation. And a federal court in Wisconsin held that, as enacted, the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional. Not surprisingly, those who support public prayer have voiced their opposition to these rulings.

However, it appears clear that proponents of public prayer seem to misunderstand several fundamental principles (or perhaps understand but choose to ignore them). First, it is absolutely critical to recognize that neither judge in any way prohibits prayer. Americans, including students at Greenwood, remain free to pray. They can pray in their respective houses of worship, at home, at work, on the street corner, or even in school. A student can even choose to pray during Greenwood's graduation ceremony.

All the court rulings did was to remind us that the government cannot sponsor prayer, as doing so falls within the prohibitions of the establishment clause. These rulings have no impact upon the free exercise clause, because people remain absolutely free to practice their individual religions; they simply cannot look to the government to promote or endorse their religion or prayer.

Next, proponents of public prayer often argue that the First Amendment applies only to acts of Congress. Thus, for example, they argue that Greenwood's prayer should be acceptable because it wasn't an act of Congress. This line of reasoning, however, completely fails to acknowledge that the Supreme Court has ruled that certain protections of the Bill of Rights apply to the states, too, pursuant to the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Finally, proponents of public prayer argue that the objections of a minority should not be allowed to veto the will of a majority, expressed in a democratic vote (like that of Greenwood's students). However, this argument fails to recognize that a core purpose of the Bill of Rights is to protect minorities from the "tyranny" of the majority. Would anyone suggest that a majority could vote to outlaw a particular religion or vote to rescind freedom of the press for a particular television news station or vote to make a certain class of people slaves? Of course not.

And finally, some questions for those who advocate for public prayer: Why does your religious observance require public prayer? Why is prayer in your home and place of worship insufficient? And why do you need the government - our government - to support your religious efforts?

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