To prohibit all things religious is to go beyond the separation of church and state.
Christian parents are concerned about secularism in the public schools. For many of them, Supreme Court decisions in 1962 and 1963 banning government-sponsored prayer and devotional Bible reading in the schools were the last straw; they decided to enroll their children in private Christian schools. Others lobbied for bills that permit students and teachers to pray or meditate in public schools.
In recent months the prayer-in-schools issue has resurfaced in several states. In Buffalo, New York, students were denied the use of public schools for voluntary prayer sessions and Bible clubs. Similarly students at Guilderland High School in Albany were refused permission to gather voluntarily for prayer on school property outside of school hours. The New Jersey Board of Educators ordered a high school principal to quit holding prayer meetings for students in his office. In Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Oklahoma legislatures, school-prayer bills have been hotly debated. How should Christians view these developments?
First, we need to understand what the Supreme Court decisions mean. The court seems to be saying that the government may not sponsor religious exercises in the public schools, but it may permit them under certain circumstances: (1) as long as the end result does not favor one religion over another, and (2) as long as participation in the religious exercise is completely voluntary.
In Massachusetts, for instance, a 1966 law prescribing a period of silence for meditation or prayer in public schools was upheld 10 years later because it allegedly protected the rights of both students who wished to pray and those who did not wish to pray. But a law passed in that state last year (which took effect this February) that allowed classroom prayers only if students would lead them was struck down by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. Why? Because it forced students and teachers who did not wish to pray to choose either to leave the room, or to participate in a religious practice that made them feel uncomfortable. In other words, the law favored those who wanted to pray over those who did not want to do so.
C.R. Daley, editor of the Western Recorder, a Kentucky Baptist publication, highlights the problems inherent in this kind of legislation: “Imagine the atmosphere of most of today’s classrooms when the prayer period is announced; a volunteer leader is invited to take over, the teacher excuses the nonprayers and … the unsupervised nonprayers [madly rush] for the corridors and rest rooms. Disorder and lack of discipline are problems enough already for teachers without encouragement in the name of voluntary worship. A prayer meeting in such an atmosphere is more sacrilege than worship.
“Or imagine a Moslem student volunteering to lead the prayer one day and teaching fellow students how to bow toward Mecca and leading them in a prayer to Allah. The kind of religious service this legislation [a Kentucky bill similar to the repealed Massachusetts law] calls for could not justly deny a Moslem, a Hindu, a Buddhist or any other pagan from leading the prayer. Do we really want this?”
Good question. But on the other hand, a short period of silence (similar to that provided by the 1966 Massachusetts law) during which students could pray, meditate, rest, do homework, or any other silent activity they choose would cause no harm and might do significant good. It would at least be an open, public way for teachers and students to acknowledge the Deity. It could lend an air of seriousness and decorum to the classroom that is often missing. Children from unchurched families would have a formal period of time where they might begin to think about their relationship to God.
This period of silence avoids the danger of advancing the cause of any one religious group above others, or of perpetrating a meaningless civil religion. Since no person “leads” a period of silence, teachers will not be required to solicit volunteers, and students will not have to choose between praying and leaving the room, thereby avoiding practices that might legitimately be reckoned as in any way coercive.
The Supreme Court decisions, as we understand them, should also permit voluntary meetings of prayer groups, Bible clubs, or other student religious groups on school grounds. Again, the same rules apply: the school must permit all religious groups to meet, not just selected groups; and the meetings must be voluntary and must not infringe upon the rights of others. High schools in Buffalo and Albany, New York, and universities in Missouri, Oklahoma, Washington, and Nebraska are now in the midst of court cases dealing with this issue.
Legally, volunteer prayer meetings in schools are quite within the bounds of the Constitution. But zealous school boards and college administrations have gone overboard in their attempt to avoid the appearance of “favoring” one religion or another. The easy way out is always to prohibit anything whatsoever of a religious nature. The easy way, however, is not the best way in this case.
To prohibit all things religious is to go beyond the separation of church and state, to something that our forebears never intended: the separation of religion and state. The original American Constitution guaranteed separation of church and state in the sense of prohibiting the establishment of any particular church or religion. During recent years, the courts and the American public in general have come to interpret the Constitution to mean something quite different—that any support of religion by the state is illegal.
Are we really prepared to defend a complete separation of religion and state? This may become necessary as our only modus vivendi in a radically pluralistic society. Mr. Daley’s scenario can be applied with adjustments to prayer at governmental functions, by military chaplains, at current swearing-in ceremonies for court and public officials. It could also apply to the familiar “In God We Trust” on our coins, tax relief for church property, and housing allowances for the clergy. If we buy the principle of complete separation of religion and state, it is only a matter of time until our courts will remove all traditional supports for religion in a thoroughly secularized state.
Some evangelicals are convinced that this radical separation of religion and state is the right direction for us to go; but, if so, they must be prepared to accept the inevitable consequences. We think there are better ways. One is governmental support for religion that does not coerce or lead to the establishment or advancement of a particular religion. Our founding fathers certainly envisaged this path; our nation still follows this path. No doubt it creates tension; the boundary line between support of religion and coercion will vary from place to place and will always be open to debate. From an evangelical point of view, moreover, religion in general is often the worst enemy of true religion. But given the importance of religion to human culture and the dominant role of required education for children, tension may be preferable to the complete removal of all religious and moral support from the government.
We believe that a period of silence for prayer or meditation in public schools preserves this healthy tension between church and state. By forcing students to pray, we promote a state religion. By forbidding all religious activity we sell out to secularism. We much prefer the balanced approach that follows the true intent of our founding fathers and the actual practice in America up until the present time.
The time has passed for the trumpet calls of Communist slogans: “We shall seize God by the throat!” With all their totalitarian power Communists are now trying to squirm out of admitting that they are persecuting and burning out belief in God.
There has flowered in Russia an independent, courageous priest who is loved far beyond his own parish. Father Dmitri Dudko, who has not bowed his head before the standing KGB orders of the official church. He has renewed the age-old sermons to the hearts of the people, sermons which are forbidden in the USSR, and the people, pining for the word of God for half a century, come to him in throngs.
It is precisely for this reason that the Communists are destroying Father Dmitri today, but their mighty power is afraid to act openly—word has come from Moscow that the KGB is coaching false witnesses among the young people for a spurious trial with the vile allegation against the priest of homosexuality and drunken orgies, as his parish discussions with young people are portrayed, and which are closer to the government’s level of understanding of such matters.
Another independent, brave priest. Father Gleb Yakunin, who informed the world about Khrushchev’s persecutions of the church earlier than all others, who fearlessly defended all persecuted believers in the USSR for 15 years, will also be tried covertly for his Christian belief and Christian truth. Against him, however, they are preparing yet another false accusation: speculation in icons. The greatest marauder and speculator in Russian history—the Soviet government—comes forth with the accusation after having exported, and while still exporting abroad, immeasurable treasures of the Orthodox religion and of Russian art, for currency.
I have personally known both of these self-sacrificing, inspired priests for many years and I will testify for them in order that the world may hear beforehand about the baseness being prepared by the Soviets. Brezhnev’s total attack against religion is now under way. Members of the Christian Seminars, young people who have begun to see clearly, are being arrested, and they will be tried on false charges.
Communist leaders still have sufficient power to seize people, and even continents, but they lack the courage to look people straight in the eye.
The Solzhenitsyn statement was released by Freedom House. New York. N.Y., through its Center for Appeals for Freedom, created last year to receive and disseminate information on conditions under repressive regimes of both the right and the left.
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