SID SALTER: What kind of prayers in schools?

By Sid Salter

After Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill that could lead to public prayers by students at functions like graduation, sporting events, or even over the schoolís intercom, I couldn’t escape memories of my childhood.
My late father was a high school principal and vocational agriculture teacher in rural Mississippi from the late 1940s through the early 1970s, a Southern Baptist, and a U.S. Army veteran.
At school assembly programs or sporting events he led, two preliminary activities preceded the main event – first, a prayer, and second, either a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance or the singing of the National Anthem, or both.
Those students who deviated from the rules of decorum saw the order of events altered to include prayer, patriotism and the addition of corporal punishment. He would alternately ask local Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian or Pentecostal ministers to deliver those prayers.
After school integration, Dad widened the circle of ministers invited to offer those prayers to include African American ministers of those same basically Protestant or evangelical faiths.
My dad retired before cultural changes came about – particularly the Lemon case, which established a “test” of sorts for laws impacting questions of the separation of church and state. In the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman, Chief Justice Warren Burger enunciated his Lemon test as follows: “First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.”
To address those issues, the new Mississippi law – and others like it around the country – features language requiring that state school districts adopt a policy to allow a “limited public forum” at school events such as football games or morning announcements for students to express religious beliefs.
The question then becomes one of exactly what kinds of prayers the new law would allow to be expressed in this “limited public forum.” Does the law allow school-sanctioned public student expressions of basically Protestant or evangelical prayers and religious beliefs, or does it broadly allow Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other faiths to have equal expression? What about paganism? Atheism? Agnosticism?
Yet for my fellow Methodist Gov. Bryant and the mostly Protestant or evangelical Mississippi legislative majority that passed Senate Bill 2633, the Lemon test may ultimately determine whether the new law passes constitutional muster when opponents almost certainly file suits seeking to challenge the law.
The specific legal battle and the larger cultural war will continue to rage. I think my father understood the dilemma in his day. He often repeated that old canard about school prayer – bent slightly to his own observances: “As long as there are algebra tests and cheerleader try-outs, there will always be prayer in schools.”
SID SALTER is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601)507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.