Prayer: Not sanctioned, but

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 26, 1999

important to many



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Staff Writers

Published Sept. 26, 1999

Although prayer is an important part of the lives of Pike Countians, officially sanctioned prayer is by law not allowed to spill over into public schools and government functions.

In the Troy City Schools System, no system employee can lead prayer when it involves students, said Superintendent Hank Jones. However, they can hold a moment of silence.

"Prayer must be student initiated and student-led," Jones said. "The Troy City Board of Education does open its meetings with prayer, but those officials are appointed and students are not involved."

Jones said it has been several years since the school system has received any complaints about its policy.

About five years ago a mother volunteering at Troy Elementary School expressed concern about a moment of silence to memorialize victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. The moment was observed in schools nationwide.

Jones said he told students they might observe the moment of silence by praying but did not advocate that is what they should use the time for.

"I was trying to explain to the children what we were doing and why," he said. "Once the woman, who is Jewish, and I talked about it, she understood we were not telling the students to pray."

Jones’ understanding of prayer laws is correct, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

The ADL cautions that prayer in public schools is constitutional under certain requirements.

The ADL cites as a general rule, "Organized prayer in the public school setting, whether in the classroom or at a school-sponsored event, is unconstitutional. The only type of prayer that is constitutionally permissible is private and volunteer student prayer."

The reason for the ADL’s general rule stems from the Constitution which states in the First Amendment that there will be a separation of church and state.

"Compliance with the separation of church and state must be vigorously enforced in the nation’s public schools," the ADL says. "Religious neutrality is essential due to the unique sensitivities of school children and the special nature of the public school setting."

The ADL also holds that teaching about religion in public schools is permissible, while teaching religion itself or religious doctrine is not.

The Americal Civil Liberties Union cites a landmark case that passed the Supreme Court against the State of Alabama as reason why "moments of silence" are not reasonable when sanctioned by a member of the school administration, including teachers.

The outcome of Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) was that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Alabama’s moment of silence law.

The ACLU says that moments of silence are not acceptable in the classroom as times for prayer since, "teachers already have the authority to ask their students to be quiet."

The ACLU disagrees with the argument that if school prayer, or moments of silence for prayer in schools is adopted in the form of an amendment, the declining morals of the country will lessen.

"A one-minute prayer or moment of silence in school everyday will do nothing to change that," it asserts.

The ADL cites the 1971 case of Lemon v. Kurtzman as its "Lemon test" of allowing religious activities in schools.

According to that case, public policy must do all of the following:" have a secular purpose, have a primary effect which neither advances or inhibits religion, and avoid excessive state entanglement with religion."

Despite the public debate about prayer in schools, forms of prayer that are not sanctioned by school administrators occur daily in Alabama schools, which is something that is currently protected under the Constitution and by the U.S. Supreme Court.