Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 30, 1964

The Right To Pray

David Lawrence

(The article, "The Right to Pray is reprinted by special permission from 'U. S. News & World Report; published at Washington, in the March 2, 1964 issue.)

"Plainly, a constitutional amendment has become absolutely necessary to clear up the confusion that has arisen as a result of decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States banning prayer in the public schools.

For the American people do not know now whether their children can lawfully be given in the classroom the very instruction in morality and righteous living which is so essential to the proper upbringing of American youth.

We may today be equivocating if we try to apply the High Court's ambiguous words in its decisions on prayer in the schools. Some interpretations would appear to permit the reading of parts of the Bible as a "historical" or "literary" study. Public-school principals, in various States, have already indicated a desire to experiment with such devices. But how can we be sure whether the "historical" or "literary" does not invade the area of religious teaching?

It is much more sensible to rely on a clearly written constitutional amendment which emphasizes the difference between voluntary and compulsory prayer in the schools or in ceremonies conducted under government auspices. The provision in the Constitution that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," should be continued, but there should be a clear definition affirmatively stating the basic principles safeguarding "the free exercise" of religion.

Prayers are offered at the opening of the sessions of the Senate and the House and of the Supreme Court itself. These are an official part of the proceedings. Under the Court's decisions, is it at present constitutional for any form of religious exercise to be conducted in buildings financed with Government funds?

Each individual has a right to pray. This right does not vanish when the individual participates in a governmentally supported proceeding.

The argument that has influenced the Supreme Court is that any practice of theism — to utter prayers expressing a belief in God — is in itself equivalent to "an establishment of religion," and that to let school children express a belief in God as they pray at the beginning of a school day is to make it a government-directed or government-sponsored undertaking which is allegedly prohibited by the Constitution.

But there is a distinct difference between volition and compulsion. The atheist has a right to abstain from participation in any prayer, whether or not God is mentioned. He has no right, however, to interpose his beliefs in a manner that forbids others to worship God as they please — "the free exercise" of their religion.

It is no answer to the problem to say that the right to pray can be adequately exercised in the home or at church services. For the value of prayer once a week in a church, where the attendance covers all ages and large numbers, is not as great as the everyday impact of prayer on the minds of children of the same age in a small classroom. Here the teacher can promptly supplement the prayer with lessons explaining morality and integrity, thus inculcating in the minds of boys and girls at an impressionable period in their lives a respect for fellow human beings, a respect for honesty as opposed to cheating, a respect for the rights of others as opposed to intolerance and selfishness.

Indeed, how can our youth be trained in those ways of living which will help to prevent juvenile delinquency and crime unless in some way reverence for the Supreme Being is instilled?

The importance of prayer in the schoolroom is primarily that it is strengthened by group psychology and that it is an everyday, rather than a once-a-week, stimulus to better living.

It is being asked: Is there a right to pray during proceedings held in any government building? If it is constitutional for certain individuals within the government itself to organize collectively in trade unions — for private purposes — while others refrain from joining, how can it be persuasively argued that there should be no right of individuals to choose to pray collectively in a school provided by local government? Certainly an individual may pray in silence, but the benefit of articulation by the group is then lost.

Let the new constitutional amendment make it clear that prayer can be conducted in the classroom on a voluntary basis and that those who do not wish to attend may be excused or temporarily released.

The problem has too long been neglected. Early action is as vital as the "war on poverty" or the war on crime. For the right of young and old to pray together voluntarily in any building or facility provided by government — federal, state or local — is essential to the fulfillment of the objectives stated in the preamble of the Constitution: to "promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."