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Prayer in Public Schools

What seemed to be a settled issue about prayer in public schools is once again in the news ("Mississippi Tells Public Schools to Develop Policies Allowing Prayers," The New York Times, Mar. 16). A new law in Mississippi goes beyond merely allowing students to pray at school events to requiring schools to develop policies that permit them to do so. To circumvent the charge that the law sanctions school prayer, administrators are urged to post a disclaimer to the contrary.

Perhaps the distinction is apparent to lawyers, but it escapes me. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe that student-led prayers over public address systems at high school football games in Texas were not permissible. Yet Mississippi thinks its new law will prevail over legal challenges. It bases its belief on what is known as a "limited public forum." ("Limited" refers to the time and place.) If so, then can students who don't believe in God use the same forum to cite quotations from Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who founded the American Atheists? I doubt that would ever happen. But it points up the dilemma facing public school officials.

When I was in public elementary and middle school on suburban Long Island in the late 1940s, the Lord's prayer, which was led by the principal, was always recited at weekly assemblies. I viewed it on a par with reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. In other words, both were accorded respect. I never knew if my classmates felt the same way because it was never an issue. But I acknowledge that was a different era. I believe that religion should be a personal matter. If students want to wear a cross or other sign of their faith to a public school, that is their right. The danger is when religion becomes associated with a public school's official position. That's why I'm concerned about Mississippi's new law and its variants that are sure to follow in other states.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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