Sunday, November 13, 2011

Private Prayer at Public School

In Jacksonville Florida, Pastor Ron Baker has held morning prayer sessions outside of the schools of Clay County School District for the past decade. The school board recently told the Pastor that holding prayer sessions on school grounds is unconstitutional. The Pastor’s praying, however, is an exercise of his religion and furthers a secular purpose: “why wouldn’t I want to pray for the safety and security of that school, pray for all those teachers and administration, pray for all those students.”

Earlier this school year, Clay Hill Principal Larry Davis issued a letter to District families urging students and community members to join in the prayer circles held by Pastor Baker. This prompted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to urge the school to ban the prayer sessions. The Liberty Council responded to the FFRF’s demand as unconstitutional. Clay Hill’s superintendent’s reaction was to ask Pastor Baker to hold the prayer session earlier in the day when school grounds were largely vacant.

There are two major issues that require mention: can a public school allow a Pastor to pray on campus, and can a public school’s administration urge students and community members to join in on these prayers. To allow both may violate the Establishment Clause and to disallow both – particularly the former – may violate the Free Exercise Clause.

Principal Davis’ encouragement of the prayer seems to draw parallels to several cases, the precedents of which indicate that Principal Davis violated the Establishment Clause because his encouragement of the prayer dances closely to state sponsorship of the prayer. In Engel v. Vitale, the Court ruled that the New York Regents Board in creating, recognizing, and allowing for prayer effectively gave preference to religion over non-religion and influenced the religion of the people thereby violating the Establishment Clause. For Jacksonville, the Principal’s encouragement of the prayer acts the same way as the Board’s establishment of the prayer for both involve an agent of the state encouraging religion over non-religion. In Wallace v. Jaffree the Court maintained that a moment of silence to begin the school day was unconstitutional because it constituted an effort to encourage religious action. Lee v. Weisman also ruled against prayer by a religious figure at graduation ceremonies because the practice represented state endorsement and support of religion over non-religion. Santa Fe v. Doe went further and ruled against student-initiated prayer at school events. In this case, the Court ruled that the school could not permit this type of speech on its grounds because the speech, being on school grounds and marking the beginning of a school sponsored event, was considered public speech and thus state-sponsored state. The precedents set by these cases demonstrate that the Court holds that prayer or a chance for formalized prayer on public school grounds – even if not initiated by the school but simply allowed by the school – violates the Establishment Clause. Therefore, according to these precedents, Principal Davis, in encouraging the prayer and acting as an agent of the state, violates the Establishment Clause. As concerns Pastor Baker, the ruling of Santa Fe v. Doe may indicate that Pastor Baker’s speech is not private speech, but public speech because he utilizes school grounds, and effectively uses each school day to initiate his prayer sessions. According to Santa Fe, his speech is not allowed. The significant deviation from Santa Fe is that Baker has no connection to the school, whereas in Santa Fe the student speaker represented the student body.

Conversely, the Court ruled in the Good News Club v. Milford that the exclusion of a religious club from school grounds violated the Establishment Clause. According to this ruling, to ban Pastor Baker from praying on school grounds would violate the Establishment Clause. Furthermore, according to Good News Club, the school in allowing the prayer sessions does not risk a perception of school endorsement – for the Court is not interested in the “perceptions of particular individuals.” However, considering that not only is the Pastor praying, but also that the Principal is encouraging, and thus endorsing the prayer, the precedent of the Good News Club may not stand. Furthermore, whereas the Good News Club met after school in an obscure room, the Pastor prays in a very public space while campus is mostly occupied: early arrivals enrolled in YMCA daycare begins at 6:30 am, student supervision by school personnel begins at 8:00 am, and school commences at 8:30 am. Pastor Baker begins prayer at 8:15 am. Based on Court precedents where clubs are allowed to convene so long as there is no confusion about endorsement (i.e. the session is not sponsored or encouraged by the school and is held after school hours while classrooms are mostly vacant) the Pastor’s praying on school grounds may be deemed a breach of the Establishment Clause. N.B. the Court utilizes Lamb’s Chapel to determine Good News Club.

I find all but the last two mentioned rulings incorrect, and I conclude that Pastor Baker’s right to free speech and free exercise must be protected and that Principal Davis in encouraging the community to attend the prayer did not violate the Establishment Clause because there was no establishment of a national religion. Whereas the Court holds that religion and non-religion should be held as equals and that neither should be asserted over the other, I contend that to ban religion from the public sphere is hostile to religion and that to uphold religion does not violate the Establishment Clause because religion has been central to the history of our great nation and reference to religion does not demonstrate a preference for any specific religious sect. For these reasons, Clay Hill District is in no conflict with the First Amendment.


Harry R. said...

I disagree with Ashley and feel that the principal's endorsement of the prayer constitutes a violation of the establishment clause. He is using his post as a public school principal to attempt to influence students to support certain religious beliefs. Additionally, there is no precedent to support allowing outside pastors to come onto school grounds and hold prayer sessions while school is in session. If an individual came onto campus and started discussing the latest Simpsons episode every week, loudly and directed at students, the school administrators would immediately have him thrown off campus just as this pastor should be.

PamelaR said...

Like in most cases, I fully disagree with the teacher's claim that his prayer has a secular purpose. Prayer is by definition a religious act, and even if he is praying to keep the school/students safe, he's still asking for this from a higher being, and no matter what he prays about, prayer can never be secular.

David P said...

This seems to clearly be a violation of the establishment clause. The teacher, being an authority figure, should not be advocating or publicly practicing in front of his students, especially in the classroom. He has strong influence over the students, anything he says will have impact, especially if these kids are in a minority religion, making them feel either that their personal beliefs are wrong, or that some religions are better than others.

Callie B said...

I believe the pastor has the right to exercise his religion by praying on school grounds BEFORE school hours, however, I absolutely disagree with Ashley's claim that the principal did not violate the establishment clause. The principal sent out a news letter not only endorsing this prayer but also endorsing the idea the the First Amendment only applies to Christians. (see article Ashley linked) He is a representative to his school, especially in the school newsletter, and he is not only advancing religion, he is advancing a particular religion. This is quite obviously an establishment clause violation!