There’s not much Ouachita Parish school officials can do to counter charges of unconstitutional school-led prayer at West Monroe’s Riverbend Elementary, except to make the ground as fertile as possible for students to engage in prayer on their own.
Last week, news reports surfaced that the school had allowed at commencement of the school day student-led prayer through its intercom system in conjunction with recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, with officials overseeing a system where a student volunteer would recite it. A complaint worked its way to a special interest group that notified the school that it saw this as an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion, and so the practice has been discontinued.
Unfortunately, there exists a decades-long string of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that backs the group’s opinion. If a government entity facilitates with any of its own resources any activity that would appear to grant religious exercise preference, the Court has ruled this to be an unconstitutional state endorsement of religion.
Nor can a state’s public schools avoid this doctrine by citing arguments that the Constitution affords states power over education, even as buttressed in the case of religion by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and its Louisiana version that disallows government from placing a substantial burden on religious exercise. Any state constitutional amendment trying this wouldn’t survive a legal challenge. Additionally, federal law requires state and local education agencies to comply with this doctrine in order to receive federal funding.
Certain exceptions can be made but on nonreligious grounds. For example, prayers may be invoked at a governmental plenary body such as a prior to a school board meeting, but the judiciary has allowed this as an expression of a historical practice. And for schools because of the captive and instructive nature of public educating, restrictions even are tighter.
Don’t look for the prevailing doctrine to change any time soon. The judiciary in the past has passed on many chances to alter it like, for example, rejecting arguments that not to grant religious exercise preferential treatment in essence endorses irreligion, or that a secular humanism is given a preferred position, which actually had its origins as the Louisiana case Edwards v. Aguillard about teaching creationism.
Given this reality, options presented to Ouachita or any other district and the families they serve wanting a place for prayer in the school day are very limited. Prevailing jurisprudence dictates that schools must structure any expression along content-neutral lines and any religious practice resulting from that it cannot be attributable to the school itself, including the manner in which expressive activities were organized, with equal opportunity for other kinds of expression or practicing nonreligious also to be a product.
Practically speaking, this means religious expression in an organized sense or individually must come from students themselves during noninstructional time without staff intervnetion. For example, students may meet on school property before school hours voluntarily to engage in religious expression, or the school may declare something like a “moment of silence” during the school day during which religious expression may occur, although teachers and other school employees may neither require, encourage, nor discourage students from praying during such time periods.
If a school’s officials and families served desire religious expression to occur along the lines of the morning prayer, their best recourse may be at the start of the day to declare a short period of contemplation, even prompted by a quotation which could come from a religious figure. However, that content couldn’t explicitly invoke religious objects.
Undoubtedly, greater religious belief would ameliorate many ills troubling American society. Regrettably, jurisprudence makes that difficult to stimulate in the context of schooling.