The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld an appeals court ruling that prayer before a high school football game, even when given by students chosen by their peers, violated the First Amendment of the Constitution. Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens stated that since students were only able to deliver religious messages deemed "appropriate" by the school district, that meant "minority candidates will never prevail and that their views will be effectively silenced." He went on to say, "Even if we regard every high school student's decision to attend a home football game as purely voluntary, we are nevertheless persuaded that the delivery of a pre-game prayer has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship."
In his strongly worded dissent, Chief Justice William Rehnquist accused the majority of "distorting existing precedent" in ruling the policy violated the First Amendment, which also guarantees freedom of speech. He went on to say, "Even more disturbing than its holding is the tone of the Court's opinion; it bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life."
Although I too find the tone of their decision disturbing, I nevertheless agree with the outcome. Everyone attending any sporting event has the right to pray prior to the start of the game, or at any time during the game. Besides, wouldn't several thousand individual heartfelt prayers be more effective than one well-crafted prayer written and delivered more to impress those gathered with the piety and verbal skills of the one praying than to impress God? No one can stop us from praying any time, any place, as long as we do not disturb those around us. God hears us without our praying out loud. Besides, we are praying to God, not our neighbors.
Those of you who have been faithful readers over the years know I am not an advocate of school prayer or any form of state-sponsored, bureaucratically run religious education. However, whenever I write an article on the subject I receive mail, phone calls, etc., denouncing me as a heretic. Their principle argument is that there is no morality in schools because there is no God in schools. I disagree. There is no God in schools because there is no morality. Why do we need to teach religion to teach morality?
Are we so corrupt and deprived as humans that without the fear of eternal damnation we are incapable of acting civilly toward one another? Will children only respect one another if God demands it? This not only degrades humans, it degrades God. No religion has a monopoly on morality; nearly all of them have guidelines, or laws concerning how we should treat one another. We do not have to present any particular viewpoint to teach children to respect the person and property of others. We can teach that all people have value without referring to God.
If all the good, well-intentioned people in the world would put as much time and energy into teaching children right from wrong as they do into arguing over state sanctioned prayer, our schools would be a lot safer. I encourage all of you to pray about it.
The Rev. James A. Nelson is the pastor of the Epworth and Palen United
Methodist Churches in Savannah and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org