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Talking Points

Question:
Is school-sponsored, nondenominational prayer in public schools unconstitutional?

Engel (Student)

Vitale (State)

1. Does nondenominational, school-sponsored prayer force religion on impressionable children?

Affirmative. Yes.
Although the government may have a legitimate interest in certain religious matters concerning adults, e.g., providing chaplains to the military or to prisoners on death row, there is a difference when the government involves itself with religious matters concerning children. Children are particularly impressionable, and school-sponsored prayers may lead such children to embrace a religion that neither their parents nor they would otherwise choose.

Negative. No.
The prayers prescribed for recitation before the beginning of class are short and nondenominational in character. There is no lengthy discussion as to what they mean. They simply recognize the country's dependence upon God. Theological discussions are not held in the classrooms of these schools. Such discussions are left to religious instruction classes outside of the public schools, which parents may or may not wish their children to attend. There is no way that such a short prayer can be considered enough to "coerce" an impressionable mind into accepting a particular faith.

2. Does school prayer that is nondenominational constitute governmental interference in religion?

Affirmative. Yes.
The First Amendment does more than just prohibit the establishment of an official state religion, e.g., the Church of England. Recognizing the importance of religious beliefs to those who hold them, the Amendment is meant to prohibit any governmental interference with religion. Any prayer, even if it is nondenominational, may still be offensive. On the one hand, they might not be in conformity with the tenets of a given religion. On the other hand, devout persons might feel that these prayers trivialize religion. It is simply not the government's job to become involved in religious affairs.

Negative. No.
The First Amendment does not prohibit every interaction between government and religion. By providing for a nondenominational prayer, the state was very careful to choose a prayer that was mindful of the many diverse beliefs of those who attend New York's public schools. The prayer simply acknowledges dependency on and appreciation of a divine being, God. Adherents to all faiths can interpret this provision in light of their own faith traditions. Even if a person were an atheist or an agnostic, that individual does not have to say the prayer. If anyone feels strongly opposed, that person may be excused. A nondenominational prayer of this sort, without adherence to any particular creed, is not the same as a government "establishment" of religion.

3. Does nondenominational prayer in schools have an adverse impact on religion?

Affirmative. Yes.
The First Amendment was enacted to prohibit the government from becoming involved in religion. A brief overview of history shows that governments have often manipulated religion to achieve political goals, and, in doing so, often have oppressed nonconformists. Moreover, government involvement in religion may adversely impact religion because it involves temporal authorities imposing their views on a matter that is not their area of expertise. Religion benefits when the government is left out of it.

Negative. No.
The mere use of a nondenominational prayer can hardly be equated with the type of governmental interference with religion that, historically, was responsible for the oppression of dissidents and an adverse impact on religion itself. The prayer at issue does not even conform to any one creed, but is aimed at being acceptable to all. Therefore, it does not seem logical to say that the prayer can adversely affect religion. Since this is the extent of the government's "interference," certain "slippery slope" arguments do not seem applicable.

4. Is the option to leave the classroom or remain silent during a prayer a false choice that could have negative consequences for students who do not participate?

Affirmative. Yes.
The school prayer at issue in this case is not saved because of the absentee provision. The First Amendment protects absolute, not qualified, rights. The Amendment forbids government interference with religion. The Amendment cannot allow this interference and then permit violators to get around it by allowing objectors to remove themselves. Moreover, those who remove themselves may be subject to ridicule and forced to feel shame for their actions.

Negative. No.
Even if some students are strongly opposed to the prayer in question, the state shows respect for that students' rights by allowing the students to be absent from the room during the prayer. Students also may remain silent during the prayer if they feel that leaving would subject them to ridicule. The majority of people in the State seem to be in favor of the prayer, so it would seem unfair for a minority of persons who oppose it to inflict their will on the majority, especially when the State has already provided means to protect the rights of dissenters in these cases.