Sunday, October 16, 2011

Labelling Religious Artifacts as Secular: A Convenient Loophole to the Establishment Clause?

In 1963, the first graduating class of Cranston High School West presented murals of the school creed and prayer to the school, which remains on display in the school auditorium. Jessica Ahlquist, a junior at Cranston, is suing the city for removal of the mural, on grounds that it’s offensive to non-Christians.

The lawyer defending the city, Joseph Cavanagh Jr, claims that the prayer, which begins with “Our Heavenly Father” and ends with “Amen”, does not force religion on anyone, and serves solely as a “historical document as a tradition of the school”. The prayer “encourages students to strive academically” and, as Cavanagh claims, serves no religious purpose.

Ahlquist’s lawyer, Lynette Labinger, disagrees with Cavanagh’s comparison of the prayer to the Pledge of Allegiance, arguing that this is explicitly religious communication.

The display of this prayer mural in a public high school clearly violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution. In Engel v. Vitale (1961) the Court found it unconstitutional for state officials to compose an official school prayer and require its recitation in schools. While Cranston West is not requiring the recitation of this prayer, the mural is prominantly displayed in the school auditorium, and is labelled “School Prayer”. In Engel v Vitale, the Court found that the school’s promotion of a religion, even if its recitation is voluntary, constitutes a violation, and that the vague wording of the religious aspects of the prayer is not a sufficient defense.

Cavanagh claims that the prayer in question is displayed in a secular setting, not a religious one, and that the mural serves no religious purpose. However, this claim about the “secular setting”, a public high school, gives more support for removing the mural than allowing it to remain. The context of the religious display does not make its presence more appropriate, it does just the opposite-- displaying a large religious artifact in a school instead of a Church doesn’t make it secular, it makes it inappropriate.

Additionally, the contents of the prayer in question can in no way be considered secular. While some of the prayer includes nonreligious language like “Grant us each day the desire to do our best”, the prayer is remarkably similar to the language of the prayer banned in Engel v Vitale, which read; “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen.” Both prayers contain language that emphasizes morals and academic success, but both explicitly ask for these successes from a deity, which makes them both inappropriate for public school.

Using the Lemon Test, it’s evident that Cavanagh’s claim that the mural clearly serves no religious purpose is not actually clear. His argues that the prayer’s “secular legislative purpose” is to preserve the historical tradition of the school, but the history he aims to preserve is not secular; it’s that the school was established with religion in mind.

The second prong of the Lemon test, which requires no advancement of religion, is also violated for a number of reasons. The school gives a clear endorsement of religion that uses prayer by prominently displaying a prayer, and the contents give the impression that historically, the school believes that by addressing “Our Heavenly Father” one can achieve academic and moral success. This address also shows that the school supports theistic religions over non-theistic religions, which constitutes a violation.

All contents of the mural aside, a major problem with the display of the mural is its clear declaration as a “prayer”. Cavanagh claims that this prayer is secular, but even if the religious content of the prayer was removed (Our Heavenly Father and Amen), the heading of “School Prayer” would remain inappropriate. A prayer by definition is something directed at God or a deity, a religious observance, or a spiritual communion, which makes it impossible for any type of prayer to be secular, no matter its contents.

While support for the historical tradition aspect of this display may be found in Marsh v Chambers, this case doesn’t quite fit under that precedent. Marsh v Chambers found the opening of a legislative session by a chaplain constitutional because of the “unique history” of the legislation of the United States, but the only historical aspect of the Cranston West mural is that it was written by a student of the first graduating class. Allowing the mural to remain on historical grounds provides dangerous precedent for further cases--this could lead the way for depictions of artifacts like the Ten Commandments or Golden Plates of the Mormons to be displayed in Courts, town squares, or schools because, like the mural, they are “historical documents”, despite their clear religious messages.


Harry R. said...

I agree with Pamela that this banner constitutes a violation of the establishment clause. The Lemon Test is clearly violated by this banner, for there is no secular purpose advanced by the religious aspects of the prayer. Were the religious aspects removed and the document reclassified as a motto or similar document, it would then respect the establishment clause.

Zoey Goldnick said...

I too believe this is a violation of the establishment clause on the precedent that there is no place for prayer in schools. However, I think it is an interesting distinction that the courts have made between cases involving school prayer and Marsh v Chambers and our recently discussed case Lynch v. Donnelly. The court has made this passive vs. active distinction that I don't think should be considered. For SOME this may be seen as a passive banner, just as the creche was ruled to be passive, but for others it may have much more symbolic messages of infringement and preference of religion over non religion.