What I’m about to tell you are two true stories in which public employees clearly violated Supreme Court rulings on the First Amendment. The names and a few other details have been changed to protect the guilty.
Story #1: Back when I was attending Bountiful High School in Bountiful, Utah, I had a class which required participation in competitive team events outside of school hours. We would meet at the school to take a school bus to the events. The teacher of the class, Mr. Smith, would announce what time we needed to meet. His announcements would be somewhat along these lines: “The bus will leave at 7:45. Everyone needs to be here by 7:30. Those who wish to participate in a prayer should be here five minutes earlier.” And those of us who wished to participate in a prayer would show up five minutes early. A student chosen by Mr. Smith would give a typical LDS public prayer.
Story #2: One year at Bountiful High, I had a teacher, Mr. Jones, who was not a member of the LDS church. He and I had a few discussions about church/state relations in Utah, and he felt the LDS church had too much influence over state politics. At the end of the school year, I took the A.P. exam in the subject Mr. Jones taught. The exam was administered in the school library. Before the exam began, Mr. Jones came into the library to wish us luck on the test. And then he said one of the most amazing things I can recall a teacher ever saying: “I’ve asked Molly Smythe to give a prayer.” So Molly got up and gave a typical LDS public prayer. Later I asked Mr. Jones, “Wasn’t that illegal?” He just smiled and said, “I thought it would help people feel better while taking the exam.”
Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones were both well aware that, as public school teachers, what they were doing was a violation of the First Amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court. Why did they do it, then? They felt they were helping their students, and I believe the students appreciated it.
So in my opinion, Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones were right and the Supreme Court is wrong.
I know this puts me at odds with some of the Times and Seasons permanent bloggers, who are suspicious of school prayer and civic religion. But it seems to me that the Court has gone so far in trying to protect against “an establishment of religion” that it is interfering in “the free exercise thereof.”
Now, of course, in my stories I was an LDS student in an LDS-majority school, and the prayers were LDS in nature. But I have no objection to Baptists wanting to do the same at Baptist-majority schools, or Catholics at Catholic-majority schools, or Jews at Jewish-majority schools, or Muslims at Muslim-majority schools. (And if there’s a Satanist-majority school out there, well, there are bigger problems to worry about in that community.)