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First Amendment Issues: Prayer In Public School Essay

Inclusion of prayer in modern American school schedule has been a controversial and highly debated issue during last several decades. When tragedy of the Columbine High School in 1999 occurred, in which twelve students and one teacher died, the issue of moral education and role of religion in the life of public education has been brought to an entirely different level. Right after the tragedy, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page was alive with debate over an article written by syndicated columnist, Peggy Noonan.

Writing about the “culture of death” of which the two shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were a product, she observes: “A man called into a Christian radio station this morning and said a true thing. He said, and I am paraphrasing: those kids were sick, and if a teacher had talked to them and said, “listen, there’s a way out, there really is love out there that will never stop loving you, there’s a real God out there and I want to be able to talk to you about him”—if that teacher had intervened in that way, he would have been hauled into court” (Noonan, A19).

Peggy Noonan agreed with the man’s observation and went on to write: “It occurs to me at the moment that a gun and a Bible have a few things in common. Both are small, black, have an immediate heft and are dangerous—the first to life, and the second to the culture of death” (Noonan, A19). The next day Peggy Noonan’s article was published , a reader by the name of Bill Bailey responded to Ms. Noonan’s editorial. In his letter to the editor, he commented: “I send my children to public school to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic.

I do not send them to school to be lectured on the virtues of believing in a personal God…. Teachers have no business lecturing my children on the virtues of religion (Bailey, A19). One can conclude that prayer in school represent an important and pressing problem for contemporary America, not only from socio-cultural and public perspective but also from legal one. CASE ANALYSIS Case scenario #3 relates to the legal problems emerging from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

According to it, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (First Amendment). In this way, any establishment or preference by the Congress or any other state authority of a national, state or local religion over another is prohibited. Same legal principle applies to the preference or establishment of non-religion over religion.

According to the case scenario, Johnny, who is an atheist, objects the morning prayer held in the public high school he is attending as well as a prayer at his graduation. Assuming the dispute reaches the US Supreme Court, the decision will be make in the favor of Johnny and his parents on the both issues of dispute – morning prayer and prayer at graduation. The detailed analysis is provided below and is based on the First Amendment to the US Constitution, as well as US Supreme Court cases, particularly, Engel v. Vitale, Abington Township School District v. Schempp, Wallace v. Jaffree

During Engel v. Vitale hearings, in a six to one vote, with two Justices removing themselves from the case, the Court declared the Regents’ Prayer unconstitutional for violating the First Amendment’s establishment clause, “because that prayer was composed by governmental officials as a part of governmental program to further religious beliefs (Engel v. Vitale, 370 US 421, 1962). Hugo Black delivered the majority opinion, which expressly rejected the district’s claims that that it met constitutional standards because the prayer was denominationally neutral and had a clear opt-out policy for students.

According to Black, the establishment clause “is violated by the enactment of laws which establish an official religion whether those laws operate directly to coerce nonobserving individuals or not” (Engel v. Vitale, 370 US 421, 1962). From this perspective, judgments that led to decisions made in Engel v. Vitale can be applied to the dispute between Johnny and his parents and Tree Stump High School, both regarding morning school prayer and prayer at graduation.

By this logic, within the schoolhouse, school officials must protect the balance of freedom that the First Amendment allows concerning religious expression. They must protect the freedom of each student who wishes to speak out about matters of religion and protect those who prefer to say nothing at all about religion. Schools must not sponsor religious activities or express any opinion for or against a student who personally expresses a religious belief. Issues and the US Supreme Court logic emerged from Abington Township School District v. Schempp case also serve in favor of Johnny and his parents.

The Schempp’s brief explained the opt-out policy gave the child a difficult choice “between an impulse to obey the parents’ wishes and the pressure to conform to his group. If the child yields to this pressure, the result is disobedience, a loss of respect for the parent and interference with the parent’s right to control in matters of religion. On the other hand, if the child obeys the parent, he suffers a loss of standing in his group” (Abington Township School District v. Schempp, 374 US 230, 1963). This statement reflects the situation Johnny found himself moving with his family to Tree Stump from Providence.

Johnny is coming from family advocating atheistic beliefs, and that fact he moved into a very religious community should not violate his rights guaranteed by the US Constitution and make him adapt or loose “standing with his group. ” According to the Abington brief the district’s statute “requires only that those who wish to do so may listen to daily readings without discussion or comment from a great work that possesses many values, including religious, moral, literary and historical” (Abington Township School District v.

Schempp, 374 US 230, 1963), They warned that a finding against the districts would set a dangerous precedent “whereby there could be eliminated from the public life of this nation all those customs and traditions that evidence the religious nature and origin of our country and are now and have long been cherished and accepted by a vast majority of the people” (Abington Township School District v. Schempp, 374 US 230, 1963).

The presence of the opt-out policy sufficiently protected individuals’ religious rights and therefore, they saw no need for the Court to infringe upon America’s religious traditions. The position of Abington School District probably reflects the judgment of Tree Stump High School. However, as with Engel, the Supreme Court rejected the school districts’ arguments and by a vote of eight to one struck down all state laws mandating Bible readings.

Justice Tom Clark focused on numerous judicial opinions, including Engel, in which the Court held that the government must remain neutral toward religion. Clark argued that not only did the establishment clause require such neutrality, but so too did the free exercise clause, which recognized “the right of every person to freely choose his own course with reference thereto, free of any compulsion from the state” (Abington Township School District v.

Schempp, 374 US 230, 1963). The US Supreme Court judgment in Abington Township School District v. Schempp favors the position of Johnny and his parents. Assuming high school graduation event was held outside the Tree Stump High School boundaries, the graduation prayer issue would not be regulated with rulings made in Abington Township School District v. Schempp and typical cases. The First Amendment protects a student’s right to express the faith without discrimination.

It also forbids anyone from having a captive audience or forcing anyone to participate in any type of religious activities. Case Wallace v. Jaffree involved an Alabama state law that directed public schools to provide a moment of silence for meditation or voluntary prayer. A previous Alabama law mandated a moment of silence just for meditation, but in 1981 the legislature expanded the statute to include voluntary prayer. The Court determined that the clear intent of the law was to promote religion, and thus it must be invalidated.

In striking down the Alabama law, the Supreme Court did not say that all “moment of silence” must be invalidated, but rather, the Court suggested that only those laws that either included clauses about prayers or whose legislative intent clearly called for a promotion of religion would be unconstitutional. According to the US Supreme Court ruling, “the State’s endorsement…of prayer activities at the beginning of each schoolday is not consistent with the established principle that the government must pursue a course of complete neutrality toward religion” (Wallace v. Jaffree 472 US 38, 1985).

By this logic, the Supreme Court decision favors once again Johnny and his parents. At the same time, Johnny’s teacher offer to replace a morning school prayer with a moment of silence does not contradict neither the First Amendment to the US Constitution nor the Supreme Court rulings, as long as prayer and religion are not endorsed during it. WORKS CITED The First Amendment to the US Constitution, Available at <http://www. law. cornell. edu/constitution/constitution. billofrights. html#amendmenti>, Accessed June 16, 2009 Noonan P. The Culture of Death,” The Wall Street Journal. 22 April 1999, A19.

Bailey B. Don’t Blame Shooting on ‘Absent’ God, ” ” The Wall Street Journal. 28 April 1999, A 19 Engel v. Vitale, 370 US 421, 1962, Available at < http://caselaw. lp. findlaw. com/scripts/getcase. pl? court=US&vol=370&invol=421>, Accessed June 16, 2009 Abington Township School District v. Schempp, 374 US 230, 1963, Available at < http://caselaw. lp. findlaw. com/scripts/getcase. pl? court=US&vol=374&invol=203>, Accessed June 16, 2009 Wallace v. Jaffree 472 US 38, 1985, Available at < http://caselaw. lp. findlaw. com/scripts/getcase. pl? court=US&vol=472&invol=38>, Accessed June 16, 2009


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