School Prayer and Senate Prayer Are Not the Same

By Jay WexlerProfessor of Law, Boston University Readers of On Faith are likely familiar with the Pensacola prayer hullabaloo that … Continued

By Jay Wexler
Professor of Law, Boston University

Readers of On Faith are likely familiar with the Pensacola prayer hullabaloo that has been going on for the past week. In January, a federal district court, responding to a pattern of first amendment violations, ordered officials at Pace High School to refrain from leading prayers at school functions. Shortly thereafter, the principal asked the athletic director to say a prayer before a meal at a luncheon honoring contributors to a new school athletic facility. That sent the case back to court, but the judge found the principal and athletic director not guilty (on a technicality) of violating her original order.

One curious piece of the whole Pensacola affair that might easily be missed is the letter sent to the two accused school officials by over 60 members of Congress, who suggested that the Pensacola government’s actions might somehow be justified by the fact that the House of Representatives has long employed a chaplain who offers a daily prayer before the beginning of its sessions.

The letter concludes that the “tradition of offering prayer in America has become so interwoven into our nation’s spiritual heritage, that to charge someone criminally for engaging in such an innocent practice would astonish the men who founded this country on religious liberty.”

It is indeed remarkable that, in a country founded on principles of church-state separation, both houses of our national legislature start every day off with a prayer, sometimes to Jesus. If, like me, you find this bizarre (or at least interesting), you should check out the Web site of the House Chaplain. There you can find the day’s opening prayer, a prayer archive, the “Thought of the Day,” and a schedule for Bible studies and other religious activities. You can learn, for example, that the topic of the staff Bible study on the day of the Pensacola hearing was “Are the Ten Commandments Still Relevant?” (it met in Room H2-637 Ford, from 12-1 pm).

The Senate Chaplain does not provide as much public information as the House Chaplain. When I was researching my recent church/state road trip book, however, I spent a week in Washington D.C. where I watched the Senate’s daily prayer and talked at length with the Senate Chaplain Barry Black. Though I had expected the daily prayer to be kind of a bland and lifeless affair (these prayers sometimes ask for things like giving the Senators “a new delight for matters of drudgery” and a “zest for unfinished details”) I actually found Chaplain Black’s prayers to be quite powerful. The Chaplain himself is incredibly learned and charismatic.

But the existence of the congressional Chaplains lends no support to the constitutionality or appropriateness of school prayer. For one thing, the Supreme Court’s decision upholding legislative prayer, Marsh v. Chambers, rests almost entirely on the unique history of the practice of legislative prayer, which predated the First Amendment itself. Public schools, by contrast, didn’t even exist in the United States until long after the First Amendment was ratified. More important, though, legislative chaplains are not responsible for the teaching of students and do not lead prayers where children are present. Public school officials, on the other hand, are trusted with the care and supervision of our children. They have no right to tell those children what they should or should not believe.

To the extent that the decisions of the Supreme Court on legislative prayer and school prayer differ, moreover, it is the Court’s upholding of legislative prayer that is problematic. Why should anyone in the government be able to proclaim through prayer its belief in god (and only ever, by the way, one god, and sometimes explicitly the Christian one) when not everyone in the country shares this belief? It’s for this reason that I think the power of Chaplain Black’s prayers makes them more frightening, from a constitutional perspective, rather than less. But in any event, the fact that Chaplain Black may offer a prayer before a group of Senators says nothing about whether the principal of a school district may offer a prayer before a group of students.

Jay Wexler is Professor of Law at Boston University. His book Holy Hullabaloos: A Road Trip to the Battlegrounds of the Church/State Wars, was published in June by Beacon Press.

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  • mybarginhouse

    Why can’t we put prayer back in our public schools? Why can’t we allow the teacher and students to recite this prayer? It should not offend anyone or any religion since nothing is mentioned but Almighty God and our dependence and our need for Him to watch over us. After all, isn’t that what every religion calls their God, “Almighty god” ? What happen to freedom of speech and religion… Gone with the wind? Many Blessings

  • ThomasBaum

    When Jesus, God-Incarnate, was chatting with us, humanity, in person, so to speak, He said, “When you pray, go into your closet and your Heavenly Father will hear you”, or words to that effect.God-Incarnate also said something to the effect, “Do not pray as the hypocrites pray, calling ATTENTION to yourself…”.Anyone can pray at anytime and our “closet” can be anywhere, we do not have to make a “performance” out of it.Isn’t it nice that God-Incarnate let us know that our relationship with God can be both very personal and also public but not public in the sense of forcing it on others.Forced prayer is not prayer.Some seem to think that prayer is just words whereas prayer can also take the form of actions.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • ajude4

    Becky, are you saying that you want to take guns out of schools? What happened to my right to bear arms? Are you trying to rob my children of that right?

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Insane from beginning to end, this prayer business. I might meet the logic used to argue for preserving prayer in the legislature by advocating suppression of “heresy” since it pre-dates the First Amendment.One way or another this religionism must end. The best way to make it go away is for us to revoke the nonprofit status of religious institutions, thus preserving our desire for separation of church and state, which also predates the First Amendment.As did protests against taxation without representation….

  • CalSailor

    Becky:Yes, your prayer is plain and non-threatening…but unacceptable to many fundamentalist “Christians” who are demanding that ALL Prayers end explicitly with “In Jesus name we pray.” So, they won’t be happy. So then what?There is simply, in our modern, very diverse society to craft a prayer that is acceptable to all (leaving out atheists who object to ANY prayer, for a moment). If a teacher writes it, he/she is under pressure to be non-offensive, and still, someone would object. If children lead it, which prayer? Because children, not being exposed to the nuances of the whole issue, are going to pray as they were taught. Hail, Mary, for example, or “Hear o Israel…” or “Allah is God…” or … you get my drift?But at the bottom of all this: Every child can pray in schools, and many do. There’s no reason why a child cannot ask a blessing over food, or give thanks at the beginning of the day. But teaching that should be the parents’ responsibility, not the schools’. And the children can pray, but they do not have the right to make other listen. And for me, as a minister, there’s a tremendous pressure and the possibility of bullying kids, depending on their faith (or lack of it) in having school prayer. How does a 3rd grade student decide not to participate? When I was growing up, a Jehovah’s Witness classmate (which does not normally participate in the pledge of allegience) was caused a lot of grief on this issue.The best way in our society is for family and churches and other religious institutions teach prayer, and the children practice what they are taught; while in school, that means silently, and without dramatics. And no power on earth can prevent a child from so praying.One last thought: Too often the reasons behind the push for prayer in the schools is somehow the idea that kids will somehow be “fixed” behaviorly, if we have prayer in schools. But a one minute prayer cannot change kids who are abused, or are abusive, cannot take the place of adequate food, and good teachers. Let’s as adults who care about our schools by all means pray for them as part of OUR prayer, just as we pray for all institutions of society. And most importantly, teach our children the faith that we believe, so that THEY are models for good behavior. That’s the best way to “fix” other kids: by being friends with them, by caring for them, and by helping them as their friends. Otherwise, the schools have enough to do.Pr Chris

  • usapdx


  • coloradodog

    I think young boys in middle and high school should have the right to masturbate in class. After all, God gave them the hormonal imbalances that make sitting all day with an erection very uncomfortable. In my religion, for which I demand equal time in schools, it’s only natural to masturbate – it’s the gift of a loving God and, in a free country, these rights should be extended to the classroom as well. Why can’t the people vote on this since it involves our lives and our children’s…. We pay taxes to keep the schools running, but we can’t make this possible in our schools? Why can’t the students have 5 minutes to enjoy this gift from their God?Vote for the right to masturbate…

  • ThomasBaum

    ccnl1You wrote, “From two historical Jesus exegetes:”Have either of these met God?Have either of these met satan?If not, then these two are just giving their “opinion” even if it be “learned”, it is still just their “opinion”, considering the FACT that they were not alive at the times that they are giving their “opinions” about concerning what happened or did not happen, were they?It does not matter what anyone believes because Truth is Truth and Truth does not depend on polls or opinions.See you and the rest of humanity in The Kingdom.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • ccnl1

    Yes, Thomas “the talker to god and trinity” and the “Moses of the NT” Baum, we know you talk to god every day. Strange that said god had not told you where the center of the Universe is. Please ask and get back to us ASAP.

  • norriehoyt

    Those who favor school prayer may be interested in how the practice actually worked when I was (involuntarily) subjected to it in the early 1940’s.I attended elementary school in Arlington, Massachusetts, a town which abuts Cambridge, which in turn abuts Boston.The laws of the Commonwealth then provided that at the start of every school day, the teacher in every classroom was required to lead all of the students, including Jewish and other non-Christian students, in the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.I’ve always wondered how the Jewish and other non-Christian teachers felt about taking on this task.At that time Massachusetts was an active battleground in the ethno-religious wars: Catholic vs. Protestant and Anglo-WASP vs. Irish/Italian.My ancestry was Scots-English and my parents attended a Congregational church, so you know which side of the battle I was on in the first grade.There are two versions of the Lord’s prayer: the Catholic version is shorter and omits the closing Protestant phrase: “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen”How to handle this discrepancy in the text of the prayer in my first-grade class which contained Catholic, Protestant and Jewish students?Our Catholic teacher had the answer:Neat, eh?

  • ccnl1

    Those naughty public school teachers in Massachusetts, how could they do that in a state led by the leaders of the Immoral Majority i.e. the Kennedy’s :))Well a Wiccan hex on all of them!!! And a few needles in a voodoo doll should teach them a lesson!!! :))))))

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Norrie,”Neat, eh?”Neat, indeed. I have learned that here in New York City, the Lord’s prayer, along with Christian hymns like “Come Thou Almighty King,” were sung throughout the boroughs, regardless of prevailing religious beliefs.Hence, Jews and Buddhists, for example, who were clueless about the prayer and hymns were mindlessly intoning.Creepy.

  • cyber-man

    Correction: We AFARNAZ1MANSOURI1:Interesting: I Remember; Opppss; I heard that the-BRITISH, whom used to chase Poppa G. Washington [May xtra-photons shine with him] around this town [NYC] also would martch up-n-down KINGSHIGHWAY singing “god bless the Queen” lalala; and would embark & Diembark their Ships off Sheepshead-Bay, ManhattanBeach etc.. The-LION:I’m honored to Cyber-Chat with one whom was raised with the likes of our Father/Prophet Hir ALBERT EINSTEN [pbuh et al], EISENHOWER et al; And one whom attended AMherst College during the Spoonik race!:PS: EURICKA! Man has this Month found ICE-H2O/HOH (Water mixed in silicate/glass) and the bible is getting futher, further, further … away from our Miracle as REALITY and their SINS as MYTH (ooposite TRUTH)!Amazing how fully Grown? Men & Ladys of the Congress or Senate et al; act like little kids whom must pray at their BED’s side before going to Sleep & when they awake, if any; (not on Schools time, not Secular Gov Institution time…).BEHOLD dear LION; “H-O-P-E is KiNG”! And “IT” is a Gift from the PAST, a/k/a our (not only their) HISTORY’s; a/k/a Jury, Judge & Witness.So HOPE is for All, Every & Any “Automatic Citizen/Denizen” borneth on this Blesseth (zero Curseth nor Sineth bible storys; to be BORN from within/on heading out):HOPE is especially for the “NON-THEiST,” the ATHEIST; the AGNOSTIC, CULTural-Believer/FEELER, the SECULARist; and not only the Superstupidstitious believer/faither/religionista & CO.Oppps: HISTORY = QUEEN & HOPE = KING. Human “APATHY” is OUR Fight; not only their Fight, next to Economi STAG/INFLATION! Happy Every-day!

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Interesting: I Remember; Opppss; I heard that the-BRITISH, whom used to chase Poppa G. Washington [May xtra-photons shine with him] around this town [NYC] also would martch up-n-down KINGSHIGHWAY singing “god bless the Queen” lalala; and would embark & Diembark their Ships off Sheepshead-Bay, ManhattanBeach etc.George 3, no? May two less photons shine upon him.

  • cyber-man

    I meant:The British would “Embark & Disembark their Ships right off Sheepshead-Bay, ManhattanBeach Brooklyn, Queens etc.. “SPUTNIK-race … PS: EURICKA! Man has this Month found ICE-H2O/HOH (‘Water’ mixed in silicate/glass) on the MOON of which EVERY Mammal’s hath SEEN’d, Felt or experienced under the SUN via OUR HOLY Cosmic NEUTRINO’s” [The Holy-No-Man’s, aka “IT”s, Messengers touching us , relaying our “DECAY-MOMENT”s to “IT” (G-D by ANYname), a holy-cosmic-Feeling; a Religious experience, by the nano-seconds].”So HOPE is for All, Every & Any “Automatic Citizen/Denizen” borneth on this Blesseth but miraculous NEBULA-BUILT holyi S.pace S.hip EARTH, of many (not GENESIS via man-made storys) a/k/a S.S. GAIA, S.S. GEOID, S.S. TELLUSng something.”Praise “IT” [Not a HE nor a SHE]. HALLALUYA!

  • cyber-man

    Ahhhh Haaa;How about “PRINCESS FARNAZ HIGHWAY”, me dear aye?

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Ah, alas, I am no princess, and here is no great matter. 🙁

  • bloglady

    Citizen’s Joe & Jane are saying, “Our way or the Highway.”To ‘pray’ means to “talk” to god(s). So WHO are these Senators ‘talking to’ when they are orally debating or dueling it-out wirh on the-peoples-floor; god? Is god their Fan? Besides wasting & squandering precious tax-payers-time (money) while ‘talking’ to a Wall (praying & getting payed for such usurpation), as if hath cosmic ears, on the Job, at gods expense as if godly dividends will commeth them (not Us) via their [Abrahamic.. & Vedic..] godly blessing??So; like the Author, of their [un-holy] Jealous TEN-COMMANDMENTS whom had used a “COSMIC-PEN” to biblically write/etch such Tablet/stone; THATthis also is analogous to All ‘Legislation’ (passed or not) , ay’d or Nay’d that got the Vote, such that; like Mr. Moses that Human COMMANDMENTS (Laws/codes etc..) was authorized by Humane intervention via real Pens (Oaths & or Affirmations), but hand written on Parchment/paper instead; or Chiseled (by Hand) into Stone!?!? Soo,Aren’t “THE-PEOPLE” , under OUR “REPUBLIC” (not a DEMOCRACY?) supposed to be the ones that ALL Congress as well as ALL Senate folks (whom actually think/believe they are gods or goddesses), aka the PLUTOCRATS (Gov run by the Wealthy) should be pray’d To & Blessed too INSTEAD? instead OF [IMPORTED god via NOT-MADE-IN-AMERICA competing Religion(s)] to their gods, while on the Job; not our innate G-D??

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    PROPOSED NEW DAILY PRAYER FOR BOTH HOUSES OF CONGRESSOh, Selves:Please let us eliminate from our midst all those who have engaged in shady dealings, via property taxes and the proposed health care bill, just to give two examples.Let us end pork barrels, once and for all.Let us pass legislation making ourselves fully accountable to the American people.Let us set much lower limits on campaign financing.Let us end nonprofit status for religious institutions.More to come….Thanks in advance.Amen

  • ccnl1

    Unfortunately, Farnaz and other professed atheists will never qualify as chaplains for the USA Senate or House of Representatives.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Fortunately, ccnl, the only self-professed Catholic atheist in the known world, will never be a chaplain in Congress.I, myself, have no interest in the position. Am only recommending a more hopeful alternative to the as yet unanswered prayer which our elected representatives recite.

  • Carstonio

    “After all, isn’t that what every religion calls their God, ‘Almighty god’ ?”That might be true if one is looking only at the various Christian denominations. But there are numerous religions other than Christianity – some with many gods, some with spirits other than gods, and some with no gods or spirits.

  • Athena4

    “‘Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.It is implied that you are talking about the Abramic God of the Talmud, Bible, and Koran. What about children whose families do not follow an Abramic religion, i.e. Hindus or Buddhists? Which God are they going to pray to? Would you like a Buddhist teacher to lead your child in a chant to the Dharma? Or a Hindu teacher to lead a puja to Ganesh or Vishnu? I didn’t think so.

  • ccnl1

    Yes, chaplain please include a prayer to the Wiccan Goddess (traditionally the Triple Goddess) and the Horned God. And please follow this with a rain dance, and a hex on unbalanced budgets, illicit affairs, pork barrels, excessive campaign spending and the nonprofit status for religious institutions i.e. all those churches, mosques and synagogues applying for federal grants under BO’s faith sharing plan.