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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Government has no role in public prayer


By Linda P. Campbell

I still have the tiny paper with the handwritten prayer I read at my high school graduation.

It was very devout, very religious and asked God's blessings on the Class of 1975 as we ventured into the world from our relatively sheltered lives in north Arlington, Texas.

I most likely couldn't read it at a public high school graduation today.

Some people consider that a travesty. I'm not so sure it makes much difference.

Those many decades ago, it didn't occur to me that prayer was out of line at a public event. That doesn't mean it wasn't, just that I don't recall it having been raised in what was a largely homogeneous suburban community.

With all due respect to my teachers at the time, I don't recall discussing in government, history or other classes what the founders meant in the First Amendment's religion clauses or what constitutes improper government endorsement of religion.

Having grown up Catholic, I sort of took my faith and the freedom to exercise it for granted and didn't worry too much about whether it imposed on others. Though I was familiar with the 1960s fear that electing a Catholic president would mean the pope dictating U.S. policy, it was ancient history, right?

It wasn't until Joe Goldstein's constitutional law class at Yale in the 1980s that I began to think deeply about the words of the Establishment Clause and the Supreme Court's struggle to define what they mean.

And it was later, in interviewing Rhode Island college professor Daniel Weisman about his lawsuit to stop a rabbi from praying at his daughter's middle school graduation, that I started to appreciate the competing interests.

The Supreme Court's subsequent ruling in the summer of 1992 that graduation prayers are a form of unconstitutional government coercion was a close call a 5-4 vote but it seemed neither surprising nor radical.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, appointed five years earlier by President Ronald Reagan, quoted founding father James Madison in his majority opinion: "(E)xperience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation."

In fact, the Bill of Rights' author often gets quoted for the proposition that government has no business promoting or endorsing religion.

Then-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, another Reagan appointee, also looked to him in 1995 in agreeing that a Ten Commandments display at a Kentucky courthouse was unconstitutional.

"There is no list of approved and disapproved beliefs appended to the First Amendment," she wrote in a concurrence. "It is true that the Framers lived at a time when our national religious diversity was neither as robust nor as well recognized as it is now. They may not have foreseen the variety of religions for which this Nation would eventually provide a home. They surely could not have predicted new religions, some of them born in this country. But they did know that line-drawing between religions is an enterprise that, once begun, has no logical stopping point."

The words "separation of church and state" aren't in the First Amendment, but key founders believed in the idea.

Thomas Jefferson wrote about it in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.

Madison referred to it in an 1819 letter.

But it's not a universally popular idea. And even Supreme Court justices go 'round and 'round about it.

I'm not sure middle schoolers can properly appreciate the complexities of the religion clauses. I hope that students introduced to the debate at that age will continue to explore competing views.

What I'm pretty sure of is that the presence or absence of prayer has minuscule impact on graduations these days. Last weekend, I attended a Catholic high school's commencement that included several prayers and multiple references to The Almighty.

When it came time for diplomas, the crowd was asked to hold applause until everyone had walked so each graduate's name could be heard.

The raucous cheers started almost immediately, some punctuated by obnoxious air horns.

Graduations just aren't the solemn affairs they once were.