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Prayer in schools is a very controversial issue these days, and it is held dearly in the hearts of many people in America. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was passed on December 15, 1791. The amendment states that: 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.
When the constitution was written, American people believed that conflicting religious beliefs should be tolerated by law and by custom, and the government should not be involved with religion. Those involved in writing the U.S. Constitution believed that to allow government and religion to intermingle would be damaging and corrupt for both.
One of the fundamental principles of United States government and law is separation of church and state. This principle was not always practiced and many early colonists experienced religious persecution.
Toward the end of the 1700 s, agreement emerged in the British colonies of North America favoring religious tolerance and separation of church and state. There was a reasonable explanation for this. There were so many different churches in the colonies that were successful that no one single religion could be enforced. Also, the colonists positive experiences of living side by side and doing business together with fellow colonists who had differing points of view, made them more tolerant of religious differences.
Since colonial time, public education across the United States included considerable religious content.
The struggle over the issue of secular (not religious] public schools has been going on for over two hundred years. Over many years, the meaning of secular, as applied to public schools has changed. In the beginning it simply meant that schools were controlled by government officials, rather than by church officials. No single religious organization controlled the schools. But since the vast majority of the United States citizens were Protestant Christians, Protestant values set the agenda for public schools. Bible reading and prayer, both of a distinctly Protestant influence, were a normal daily activity in most public schools. Roman Catholics, Jews, and other religious minorities objected. Many felt out of place and some felt they were being pressured to practice Protestant religion in conflict with their families own religious beliefs. Many Catholic parents took their children out of the public schools and enrolled them in the growing numbers of private schools run by their church. From 1913 until the early 1950 s, state governments across the country decided to standardize and write into law the practice of Bible reading and prayer in their states public schools. School prayer was commonly practiced throughout the United States but not entirely accepted. There were some students and their parents who were uncomfortable with the practice of school prayer and a few went to court to challenge it.
There were dozens of legal challenges to school prayer that went through state and federal courts in the early 1960 s. In 1962, the United States Supreme Court threw prayer out of the public schools in the case of Engel v. Vitale. The ruling stated that: State officials may not compose an official state prayer and require that it be recited in the public school of the State at the beginning of each school day even if the prayer is denominationally neutral [favors no particular religion) and pupils who wish to do so may remain silent or be excused from the room while the prayer is being recited. The Supreme Court s decision became the law of the land. There would not be any kind of formal prayer allowed in any public school in the United States.
In November 1995, two constitutional amendments pertaining to school prayer were introduced in Congress. The first, known as the Religious Equality Amendment, introduced by Representative Henry Hyde, a Republican from Illinois, read: Neither the United States nor any state shall deny benefits to or otherwise discriminate against any private person or group on account of religious expression, belief, or identity; nor shall the prohibition on laws respecting an establishment of religion be construed to require such discrimination. Although the amendment did not mention school prayer directly, its prohibition of discrimination against the expression of religious views of which prayer is but one form would include public schools. The other amendment, introduced by Representative Ernest
Istook, Jr., a Republican from Oklahoma, and known as the Istook amendment, did specifically address school prayer. The Istook amendment stated: To secure the people s right to acknowledge God according to the dictates of conscience: Nothing in this Constitution shall prohibit acknowledgments of the religious heritage, beliefs, or traditions of the people, or prohibit studentsponsored prayer in public schools. Neither the United States nor any State shall compose any official prayer or compel joining in prayer, or discriminate against religious expression or belief. Both amendments were widely criticized by religious and civil liberties groups favoring strict separation of church and state. On the other hand, the amendments also had many supporters.
Today, supporters of a school prayer amendment say that our youth has lost the respect that students had for their country, their peers, and their lives. Many feel our society has become worse since 1962, and consider the rising crime rate and the lowering of values in society a result of taking prayer out of schools. No one believes that this is the only cause, however, some view that prayer may inflict faith and values to those who would otherwise contribute to the worsening of society.
Supporters of prayer argue that the Constitution neither requires nor prohibits prayer in schools. What the Constitution says about school prayer is absolutely nothing. For almost two centuries, nobody thought that school prayer was a constitutional question. It was up to local communities and their school boards. Some feel this is the way it should be again. They say that what the Constitution does not say is unconstitutional, is not unconstitutional. The Constitution does not say that prayer in the public schools is unconstitutional, therefore it is not unconstitutional.
Today, public schools allow religious groups to organize on school grounds as is they are any club. They are to be treated as any other organization. Schools are not allowed to set a special prayer at the beginning of school with a leaning to any religion. Schools are not allowed to stop a student from praying, as long as it does not disrupt the class. Students can pray before class begins, at recess, and any other time when class if not being taught. Also, no teacher can make any student pray. Many people want to have a moment of silence set aside for prayer at the beginning of school. This may not be fair to many beliefs of students in that it is meant for praying. Schools are battling with this issue every day, and it seems that this issue of prayer will remain in this country s justice system for a long time.
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