The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“A Common Call to Prayer” — Gunnar Gundersen

Continuing our symposium on school prayer, JWI Affiliated Scholar Gunnar Gundersen argues that the Establishment Clause gives federal judges no right to restrict religious activity in American public education. By forbidding school prayer, judges have encouraged a culture of relativism.

Some excerpts:

Until recently, community prayer was not only non-controversial, but considered a necessary element of human society. But in the mid-twentieth century, the United States Supreme Court suddenly found that the United States Constitution prohibited offering children the opportunity to participate in this part of community and prayer life. The Court came to this conclusion even though a common call to prayer is a basic element of most human societies, whether it is the 11,000-year-old temple of Gobekli Tepe in Turkey or the temples of Tenochtitlan in Mexico.

“[T]he First Amendment was not addressing a blanket prohibition on state support of religion or even promoting a particular religion. The words are an express prohibition on the power of Congress to pass any laws ‘respecting an establishment of religion,’ a prohibition on interfering with already established churches. This provision makes sense as a complement to the No Religious Test Clause in the original Constitution. It made it clear that while the Constitution prevented religious tests for federal office, that this was not an indirect way to interfere with state-supported religions.”

The political and historical facts surrounding the adoption of the Establishment Clause make it implausible that it is meant to promote any kind of individual right, rather than federalism. If it was meant to do so, the additional guarantee of every individual’s right to the free exercise of religion in the Free Exercise Clause would be redundant. The first is meant to address the corporate rights of the people in the several states, while the second the individual rights of believers. With this context in place, it makes no sense to incorporate a limitation on the federal government that exists for the benefit of the states against the states. This is also why, in practice, every attempt to do Establishment Clause jurisprudence does not work. And to this day, the Court has no coherent body of law in this space.

If schools cannot promote prayer, if the community cannot promote truth as it best understands it, what is the basis for states and communities compelling children under the penalty of law to attend its educational institutions? Gone is the rationale that a community has the duty to ensure that students are taught to value the truth—all truth. Rather than inculcating students in the importance of truth in education, and the duty of students to pursue that truth, what is being taught is that the power to order citizens to study in government-operated institutions is its own justification.

By presenting religion this way to children in public school, judges are requiring that they learn a new lesson. They learn that truth is relative. Because if the state cannot acknowledge a power outside itself, a truth that limits it, then the power of the state is its own justification. Crucially, the state cannot acknowledge the most important truth about itself—that it is not an end but a means to help individuals and communities strive towards truth and justice. Instead of learning that human life is ordered to truth, including ultimate truth, children learn that life is nothing more than proving your worth through accomplishing tasks and training for jobs.

Read the full piece here.

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Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790