Quit Thinking School Prayer Is Banned

By Jeffrey Weiss

I suppose it's not really news that Texas Gov. Rick Perry is hoping that an emphasis on putting the Christ in Christmas will put his supporters into seats at the Iowa caucuses. After all, the unofficial kickoff of his presidential campaign was a Christian prayer rally in a football stadium.

But whatever one's position on the politics, his most recent ad violates an Biblical edict -- the one about false witness. You can watch the ad here. And here's the transcript:

"I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a Christian, but you don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.

"As President, I'll end Obama's war on religion. And I'll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage.

"Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again.

I'm Rick Perry and I approve this message."

And here's where I'm honing in: "...our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school."

The grammar is a bit ambiguous, so I'm not sure if he means to say that schools prohibit Christmas and prayer or if the Christmas thing is a more universal attack on open celebration. Either way, no matter what one thinks of Perry's candidacy, this one is another major "oops" for the campaign.

I admit, he's not alone in making his error. The Associated Press's analysis of the ad was critical, but also veered off the tracks and into the legal abyss.

Wrote AP political reporter Beth Fouhy: "The Supreme Court prohibited school prayer in two landmark decisions in 1962 and 1963, calling it an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment."

Which is sooo close to being correct. The court actually prohibited mandatory school prayer. And that one word makes all the difference. (See: Twain, Mark on lightning-bug vs. lightning.)

The truth is that kids pray in schools and on school grounds all the time. Many surely do it silently before the math midterms. But they also pray very publicly, in organized events. They do it plenty in Rick Perry's Texas, as a matter of fact.

"See You At The Pole" is a national student-organized morning of Christian prayer that started in 1990 at one school in Burleson. As the official SYAP website explains:

"The vision was that students throughout Texas would follow these examples and meet at their school flagpoles to pray simultaneously."

According to the site, students by the millions have met annually ever since at their school flagpoles to engage in explicitly, evangelically Christian prayer. It happens before the school day begins, but it's surely and openly at the schools.

But maybe these kids are breaking some law? Let's turn to organizations that make it a point to know exactly how the law applies to prayer at schools.

How about the ACLU? It's got a position page on prayer and schools. Here's a nugget:

"There are times when religion at school is appropriate. Students' rights to pray voluntarily and express themselves religiously are intrinsically important."

Maybe Perry would be more comfortable with a Texas source, the Liberty Legal Institute. This is the outfit that has a longstanding lawsuit against a Texas school district that wouldn't let a kid pass out pens shaped like candy canes and affixed with a frankly bogus Christian "history" of the candy cane design.

Hiram Sasser is the Director of Litigation and he wrote a position paper on this very topic. Here's a nugget:

"Neither prayer nor the Bible has been banned from the schools. Indeed, prayer receives a significant amount of protection in public schools..."

Too parochial? How about a national source? The American Center for Law and Justice is pretty faith friendly. How friendly? The organization's website says that it does "not charge for its services and is dependent upon God and the resources He provides."

So what does the ACLJ say about whether kids can pray at school?

"Student prayer is a protected form of speech that cannot be banned by school officials, including prayer at See You at the Pole events. A school official who refuses to allow students the right to pray on their campus is engaging in censorship in violation of the First Amendment. Additionally, a public school that receives federal funding must certify "that it has no policy that prevents, or otherwise denies participation in constitutionally protected prayer in public schools" as set forth in the U.S. Department of Education Secretary's Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools."

What? There's a federal document that Perry (and Fouhy) could have consulted? Yup. Here's the link. And here's a nugget:

"Section 9524 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act ("ESEA") of 1965, as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, requires the Secretary to issue guidance on constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools. In addition, Section 9524 requires that, as a condition of receiving ESEA funds, a local educational agency ("LEA") must certify in writing to its State educational agency ("SEA") that it has no policy that prevents, or otherwise denies participation in, constitutionally protected prayer in public schools as set forth in this guidance."

So what's prohibited? Mandatory prayers. Prayers during instructional time or official school events and led by a teacher or other school official. Prayers during classes or school events that are officially sanctioned by the school or school officials. Any proselyting by teachers, school officials, or other adults brought in by school officials during the school day or during official school events. No posting for "moral guidance" of the Ten Commandments (or passages from the Bhagavad Gita, for that matter).

Which Perry or others may think is too much restriction. But it's a far, far cry from not letting kids pray in school.

I almost didn't bother with this. Knocking Perry's gaffe was easier than shooting a coyote with a pistol equipped with a laser sight. But as Fouhy demonstrated, lots of people who should know better apparently think that Perry's ad has it right about prayer in schools.

It doesn't.

Jeffrey Weiss is a RealClearReligion columnist from Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyWeissRCR.

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