The U.S. Supreme Court may have prohibited the mandatory tradition of prayer in public schools, but their decision doesn’t prohibit schools from offering students to pray on their own initiative, says a Philadelphia councilwoman.
Ever since the 1962 Engel v. Vitale ruling, many public schools have steered clear of prayer, even if student-lead, but there is a new trend to revitalize the practice after years of its ban has proven to be more harmful to society than good.
The issue that prompted the Engel ruling was over New York school children who simply prayed: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee and beg Thy blessing over us, our parents, our teachers and our nation.”
City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, chair of the Committee on Education, said her Philadelphia constituents had requested a hearing over bringing back prayer in school and that she was more than willing to address the topic. She brought it forth through a resolution which passed last Thursday, according to Philly.com.
The resolution adopted unanimously by the City Council says “Students are free to pray alone or in groups as long as the activity is not disruptive and does not infringe on the rights of others,” and adds that “prayer can promote more virtuous living and may have a positive impact on student behavior.”
Philadelphia is not the only city to consider prayer and meditation for their public schools. Late last year a federal appeals court paved the way for Chicago schools to institute prayer through the Silent Prayer and Student Reflection Act.
In October 2007, Illinois legislators approved the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act. The law itself reads:
Sec. 5. Student prayer. In order that the right of every student to the free exercise of religion is guaranteed within the public schools and that each student has the freedom to not be subject to pressure from the State either to engage in or to refrain from religious observation on public school grounds, students in the public schools may voluntarily engage in individually initiated, non-disruptive prayer that, consistent with the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the United States and Illinois Constitutions, is not sponsored, promoted, or endorsed in any manner by the school or any school employee. (emphasis added).
Originally, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich vetoed that measure, saying the Act was a violation of the constitution, but the Illinois Senate countered – voting 42-9 in overwhelming support of the legislation.
The Illinois Act was then challenged in court by an atheist on behalf of his daughter.
The father said the purpose of the legislation “is to get more prayer into the public school classroom, in clear violation of all three prongs of the ‘Lemon Test’ three-part Supreme Court standard for state / church separation. ”
However, in October 2010 the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the Act, giving the green light for students of Chicago to pray in their classrooms.
Andy Norman, attorney with the Illinois Family Institute, a group who filed a friend of the court brief in support of the law, applauded the ruling saying the that periods of silence cannot be interpreted as an establishment of religion.
“This law connects with our nation’s heritage and a clear understanding of the First Amendment,” said Norman. “Students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door.”
In Texas, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in March 2009 in Croft v. Perry upholding a Texas law that required public school students to observe a daily minute of silence in order to pray, reflect or simply remain quiet.
The provision, which originally took effect in September 2003, changed the way school days begin in Texas, allowing children to “reflect, pray, meditate or engage in any other silent activities” for one minute after the U.S. and Texas pledges of allegiance have been recited.
Solicitor General James Ho, who argued for the State, said the moment of silence fostered patriotism, provided time for contemplation and protected religious freedom.
“In an age where children are bombarded with distractions, beginning each school day with a moment of silence offers a welcome moment of quiet contemplation,” said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott .
Judge Edith Brown Clement noted in the 5th Circuit ruling that the lawmaker who sponsored the moment-of-silence bill expressed a desire to add prayer to Texas’ existing statute after the 4th Circuit found a similar law in Virginia was constitutional.
Regardless, the unanimous three-judge panel affirmed the lower court’s ruling saying the law is constitutional because it expressly allows any silent use of that minute, whether religious or not.
In the Texas case, a couple sued on behalf of their three children, who were enrolled in the public school system. The Dallas couple contended that including the word “pray” in the mandatory moment of silence law was a way for lawmakers to advance religion in schools.
Liberty Legal Institute, a nonprofit organization that focuses on religious issues, filed a brief supporting the state in the lawsuit.
“We applaud the Fifth Circuit for affirming students’ right to pray while at school,” said Hiram Sasser, the institute’s litigation director.
As far as Philadelphia students are concerned, Blackwell agrees with the other states, saying that encouraging students to pray could also encourage them to think about the social-justice aspects of religion.
“Man naturally wants to help his fellow man,” she said. “I’m hoping that, in 2011, we can foster that feeling of love and being my brother’s keeper.”
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