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50 years later: High court's school prayer ruling still fuels religious liberty debate

1962 ruling still ignites passion

Published: Sunday, June 24 2012 7:00 p.m. MDT

"Within a decade, religious expression was pushed out of public schools in a way that was really wrong," said Kim Colby, senior counsel with the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom. "Too many school administrators took that decision as a green light to try to eradicate religion from public schools."

Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, explained that instead of reading the ruling to mean government is neutral on religion, government officials and others overread Black's opinion to mean government should be hostile toward religious expression of any kind in schools, state houses and Congress.

The ACLU, which did not respond to a request for comment on this story, says on its website that school prayer is the most hotly debated and misunderstood issue in the debate on religion in schools. While the organization fights efforts to "reintroduce religion" in schools, it says students have a right to freely express and exercise their faith.

While nearly a dozen rulings have come down since Engel to further clarify the role of religion in the public square, few issues bring the emotions to the surface in church-state battles like prayer and schools.

"Thinking about the transcendent is a natural experience and has been since the human experience began," Rassbach said. "And when people start to deny those things, that creates a reaction, and that's why you see the fights."

A new model

While the high court upheld prayer and religious expression in government and other public settings, schools were held under a special scrutiny by the justices.

"Engel established this idea that you have to be very careful about religious activities in public schools," Masci, of the Pew Forum, said. "Students are minors, and teachers and administrators are authority figures with power over the students in what they do and think."

Anything from musical selections at a commencement exercise to passing out Christmas candy made its way into the federal court system to determine if the state was pushing too hard or not enough against religious expression.

Caught between the students, parents and the legal system are educators, who often deal with a constantly moving target when trying to make peace between religion and secularism in public schools, explained Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Legal opinions, community culture and diverse student populations can all dictate the decisions administrators and teachers make to strike a balance between coercion and free expression of religious ideas. The scene plays out dramatically at Christmas when administrators, teachers and parents are keeping an eye and ear on the decorations and music to ensure it is nondemonational, Domenech said.

"As administrators you become so sensitized to it that I find myself never saying merry Christmas," he said. "I say happy holidays because I never know who I'm addressing."

While both sides of the prayer-in-school debate square off in court, Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum and a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, has been working behind the scenes with educators, religious groups, the ACLU and other interested parties to come up with guidelines to help educators comply with judicial rulings.

Over the past 20 years Haynes has spearheaded efforts to come up with guidelines on religious liberty in schools that were adopted by the Department of Education and made part of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law.

He explained that the high court was correct in saying government has no business promoting religion and should be a neutral player that ensures all forms of religious expression are allowed. But it has taken a half century for the players in the church-state standoff to implement the reasoning behind Engel v. Vitale and subsequent establishment clause rulings.

The result, he said, is an emerging new model of public education where religion has an appropriate role in education. The consensus guidelines spell out how students can pray in school, how religious clubs that had never existed before can have equal access to school facilities and how teachers can incorporate religion into the curriculum.

"I would argue that we have more student religious expression than at any time in the past 100 years because for the first time we are getting the First Amendment right in education," Haynes said. "The irony of it is that the Supreme Court opened the door for religious expression" when it first addressed the issue 50 years ago.

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