Prayer In School
Nancy Moore is one of the plaintiffs in the ACLU’s court case to end prayer at high school graduation ceremonies. In this article, she outlines her reasons why.
The right to freedom of speech is a treasured liberty to most Americans, but it is not without its limitations. Healthy and lasting freedom of expression is possible only if people understand it, respect the freedom of others, and restrain some of their own wishes. This requires maturity, sensitivity to others, and an understanding of the law.
The adage, “The right of a person to swing his fist ends where his neighbor’s nose begins” is a good metaphor. But knowing where our neighbor’s nose begins is the problem. This is when we must rely on receiving input from two sources:
- the people in general, including diverse minorities, and;
- the law, so we can understand people’s basic rights. Input is now being received regarding the prayer issue from both sources, and it is essential and valuable because it should help determine the best direction to go.
Prayer as an Act of Worship
In understanding our liberties we must make a distinction between Freedom of Speech, and an Act of Religious Worship. Prayer, according to definition, falls into the latter category, and in conformity with our civil laws, the practice should not have government endorsement in public schools. The Utah State Constitution, Article 1, Section 4 is very explicit regarding the separation of church and state:
There shall be no union of Church and State, nor shall any church dominate the Stare or interfere with its functions. No public money or property shall be approprated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction, or for the support of any ecclesiastical establishment.
Even from the Mormon theological point of view this separation is clear, for it states in the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 134, Verse 9:
We do not believe it is just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied.
So we see that from both perspectives, civil and church laws are in agreement regarding the mingling of church and state. Therefore, state sanctioned denominational prayers given in a public setting are not a basic right because prayers are an act of worship and delivering them in a public school setting crosses over a delicate line into the personal space of others. It becomes an invasion of another’s spiritual privacy because prayer imposes a particular viewpoint or religious belief on others, especially when the same religion delivers the prayers over extended periods of time.
We should be particularly careful with our children and youth when it comes to sectarian practices in the schools, because their vulnerable minds are so susceptible to inducement from those in authority over them, and they lack the maturity and savvy to understand when they are being imposed upon.
Why A State Chapter?
The definite trend among humanist organizations has been to form state-wide chapters, cooperating with local groups. Florida and Colorado are examples. Subscribers to The Humanist and A.H.A. members are widely scattered and often miss the fellowship of free minds. Florida has for years had a state-wide annual meeting, programmed its best speakers and named a Florida Humanist of the Year.
After 5 months of operation, the value of a Utah state chapter is beginning to assert itself. The first four meetings, held in Salt Lake City where humanists are principally located, brought our members from American Fork, Bountiful, Centerville, Kaysville, Layton, Midvale, Ogden, Park City, Provo, Pleasant Grove, Springville, South Salt Lake, West Jordan, and West Valley City. Our lone member in Vernal even drove the 187 miles to attend the May meeting.
Examination of the computer print-out sent us by Humanist headquarters in Amherst, N.Y., shows that there are also either A.H.A. members or subscribers to The Humanist in Cedar City, Hooper, Logan, Spanish Fork, Sunset, and St, George. We hope that many or most of these will join and support Humanists of Utah. The Humanist movement is principally an educational organization, but its position on many issues can be learned from its periodicals, and our Humanist objectives can achieve outreach and clout with a growing network of participants. The humanist thinker needs not feel alone. Hence we seek a growing membership for Humanists of Utah, both in Salt Lake City and the rest of the State. Please help us grow.
Eight persons already have joined Humanists of Utah. Most desirable is that all ultimately should also join A.H.A., the national organization, and read its periodicals. But for those who want time, an initial donation (start-up money) of not less than $5.00 will make one a member of the state chapter. If each who is now a member were to recruit a new member we would be within reach of the 200 goal.
Unfair to Atheists
President Bush’s speech on intolerance in America, as reported in the Salt Lake Tribune May 5, 1991 certainly qualifies him to add “hypocrite” to the dark side of his credentials. The president, in an address at the University of Michigan, said Americans should be “alarmed at the rise of intolerance in our land.” Taken at face value, and without the benefit of perspective, the president’s remarks seem noble indeed. However, an incident on August 27, 1987, will add perspective.
George Bush, who was then vice president, made a campaign stop in Chicago, where he held a news conference. Reporter Rob Serman inquired of Vice President Bush, “Surely you recognize the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who are atheists.” Mr. Bush replied, “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”
If Vice President Bush had aimed these remarks toward any other ethnic, religious or social group, he would almost certainly not be president today.
Intolerance of atheists is the last vestige of bigotry in America and our president is leading the way. Polls show that about 6 percent of Americans, or about 15 million, are atheists. By way of President Bush’s logic, 15 million U.S. citizens are not really U.S. citizens at all.
Furthermore, America is not one nation under God, despite what Mr. Bush says. America is one nation under the U.S. Constitution. Belief in a deity is not a prerequisite for U.S. citizenship.