Last week, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant spoke to a group of high school students at an American Legion Boys State program in Hattiesburg. After telling them that he believed his experience with school-sponsored prayer was beneficial, he explained to the media:
I know it’s difficult when you start talking about denominations and different beliefs, but I think there is a way for us to have a non-denominational opening prayer when the opportunity is available to let people know there is a God. Those children should know that he does care about them, particularly within their classroom.
He then speculated that the federal government might eventually find that school-sponsored prayer is legally permissible. While this may sound pleasantly ecumenical, it’s simply impossible for a prayer of the kind that he envisions to be described as “non-denominational”. Within only two sentences, he’s outlined a religious observance that’s entirely sectarian. The implications of his idea for school prayer make this unavoidable.
First, the statement that “there is a God” is a claim that at least one deity exists, that it’s probably the only deity, and that its name is capital-G God. Bryant further depicts it as an entity that can be described as “he” and takes an active interest in human affairs. His suggestion also implies that it’s appropriate to direct prayers to this god, and that it’s acceptable for the civil government to mandate this worship.
For such a structure of beliefs to be considered “non-denominational”, every religion would have to agree on these points, and every person would have to follow some version of religion. This is absolutely not the case, and anyone who believes that no faith group would take issue with any of these tenets obviously doesn’t have much experience with religion as a whole. Gov. Bryant seems to have forgotten that there are religions and beliefs other than Christianity.
Not everyone believes in just one god – billions of people believe in many gods, or none at all. And not every monotheist believes their god is a “he” or bears the name “God”. Some people don’t believe that a god would concern itself with human activities. Even Christians who share Bryant’s theology might still disagree with the exact text of the prayer or take issue with the government telling them when and how they should pray. Ultimately, Bryant’s outline for school prayer would be “non-denominational” only to those who completely agree with him.
If it were acceptable for the government to endorse and promote these specific religious beliefs, then it would be equally acceptable for public schools to institute daily Islamic prayers toward Mecca. Would it matter that not everyone is Muslim, or prays to Allah in the same way, or believes that the government should lead people in prayer? No. Such considerations would already have been ignored in order to allow the promotion of Christianity as Gov. Bryant sees it. Disregarding the Establishment Clause doesn’t just permit your favorite religion to insert itself into public schools. It permits all religions to do the same.
But when the civil government decides that a certain faith should be honored in schools and other public institutions, it positions itself as the arbiter of which religious beliefs are true or false. The state’s approval and promotion of Christianity necessarily means denying that promotion to Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Wicca, Scientology, Satanism, Unitarian Universalism, the Jedi, atheism, and every other viewpoint pertaining to religion. It isn’t the job of judges, executives and lawmakers to decide whether a certain god exists or a religious belief is valid, and there are no grounds for imposing a particular religion upon the populace at large.
Whenever the government says that one person’s religious views are better than another’s, somebody always loses, and anyone who seeks state promotion of their faith will only avoid this as long as their religion is in vogue. The First Amendment doesn’t only protect the government from the influence of religion. It protects everyone, of any religion or no religion, from state interference in their personal beliefs.
Without school-sponsored prayer, students are still free to pray on their own while in school. But where school prayer is mandated, students from all walks of life have often been required to acknowledge an “Almighty God” or “Heavenly Father”, whether through regulation or just social pressure. Such an arrangement is clearly antithetical to genuine religious freedom in schools.
The only truly “non-denominational” prayer is the one that isn’t imposed upon everyone else. As the leader of an entire state, Gov. Bryant should understand this, and it’s disturbing that he either doesn’t know enough to keep his personal faith separate from the government, or he just doesn’t care. He may feel that school prayer is harmless, but the Bill of Rights would beg to differ.